Continue to have inmates make prison officer uniforms

And if quality is a concern, take action to make sure material and workmanship are improved

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Working as an officer at a maximum security prison such as the Washington State Penitentiary is dangerous work. And it's become potentially more dangerous recently as state budget cuts have reduced staff at state prisons.

So it is surprising the Legislature is actually taking the time to seriously consider a proposal to allow the state to outsource the manufacturing of correctional officers' uniforms because the quality of the current inmate-made uniforms has been questioned.

Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, and 19 other lawmakers -- 10 other Republicans and 19 Democrats -- are sponsoring legislation to allow private companies to sell uniforms to the state. The law now requires the Department of Corrections to buy uniforms made by inmates at part of the prison-run Corrections Industries program that employs 1,600 offenders at 16 state prisons.

Walsh said at least three officers have personally complained to her about the quality of the buttons, seams and material of the uniforms. We, too, have heard concerns by officers living in the community.

But if uniform quality is an issue, then take action to improve the quality. The state is in control of these prison garment factories so officials can purchase higher quality materials and set higher standards for workmanship.

This approach would benefit the inmates and the officers. After all, the goal here is for inmates to learn job skills as well as the value of hard work. Demanding that a task be well done would seem to be crucial to the training.

In addition, keeping inmates working keeps them out of trouble. Idle time tends to fuel bad behavior for those who are behind bars. More inmates should be working, not fewer.

And, finally, buying uniforms from the private sector will ultimately cost the state more as the revenue from the garment work is lost. The DOC has been looking for ways to cut spending. Adding an expense for uniforms will make the budget problems a little bit worse.

Perhaps the only reason this issue has risen to a level that legislative action is even considered is because prison officials don't see a problem with uniform quality.

"In my view, they do a really good job," said Jeffrey A. Uttecht, superintendent of Connell's Coyote Ridge Corrections Center where some of the uniforms are made.

That well may be the case for some uniforms, but clearly not all.

The bottom line is the customers -- the officers -- should be satisfied with the quality of their uniforms. If officers have valid concerns about the quality of the product then changes need to be made at Correctional Industries to ensure top-quality uniforms are being made.

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