Quality of prison officers' uniforms should improve

An amended proposal in the Legislature calls for Corrections Industries to improve quality or the Department of Corrections will buy uniforms elsewhere.

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It now seems certain that uniforms for the state's correctional officers will continue to be made by inmates working at the state-operated Correctional Industries -- at least for now.

Lawmakers, including Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, had been pushing legislation to free the Department of Corrections from the requirement it buy officers' uniforms from Correctional Industries and allowing purchases from the private sector.

But the legislation was amended to give Corrections Industries until 2013 to get its inmate work force to improve quality. If there isn't sufficient improvement during this year, DOC could begin a bidding process for uniforms. The proposal establishes an accountability system to identify and fire inmates making lousy uniforms.

This amended version of the legislation was approved 92-3 by the House and now heads to the Senate.

This is the approach we suggested when the original legislation was proposed. The anecdotal evidence from employees at the Washington State Penitentiary made it clear to us the shoddy uniforms were a serious issue.

It's ridiculous, for example, for two pairs of pants to be marked as the same size but with one fitting correctly and the other so small it could not be worn. Shirts were also ill-fitting and the color was not uniform -- something that is critical to the making of a uniform.

Keeping inmates working and learning skills and a work ethic are essential. Demanding that a task be done correctly should be part of the training.

Inmates being busy is a positive. Idle time tends to fuel bad behavior for those who are behind bars. More inmates should be working, not fewer.

About 100 inmates work making clothing and are paid a very small amount, between 55 cents and $1.55 an hour, allowing some money to go toward court-ordered fines and restitution.

Some complained about the high price charged by Corrections Industries to the Department of Correction for the sometimes shoddy uniforms. Perhaps the cost was high considering the low wages, but this money stays within state government. In reality, the state is paying itself and thus keeping costs down for taxpayers. Having inmates work helps pay for their incarceration.

Ironically, one of the lawmakers who did not vote for the compromise proposal was Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Edmonds, a member of the Correctional Industries advisory board.

"I think there are some questions about the Legislature intervening in what I think should be a conversation taking place between the Department of Corrections and Correctional Industries," she said.

Yes, but the complaints about uniform quality were nothing new and the problems were not solved. When the Legislature became involved, the need for vast improvement to quality control at Correctional Industries became critical.

Legislative action was welcome and needed.

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