Are Prisoners Being Used for Slave Labor?

Are Prisoners Being Used for Slave Labor?

MONROE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Wash. State – An ex-prisoner in Washington has argued that an outside company is in violation of state law by forcing incarcerated individuals to package their products for slave wages.

Daniel Tash was incarcerated for more than 30 years for first degree murder. He spent upward of 20 years working for Correctional Industries (CI), a Class 2 Tax Reduction Industry with factories in prisons all over the country.

The Revised Code of Washington grants organizations Class 2 status as long as they “…shall be state-owned and operated enterprises designed primarily to reduce the cost of goods and services for tax-supported agencies and nonprofit organizations.” (RCW Chapter 72.09.100)

Utilizing prisoner labor, CI manufactures an array of products, ranging from furniture to license-plates, that are sold to state agencies such as schools and prisons. A law requiring such agencies buy from prison-factories, and the fact that they can’t buy from anywhere else, enables CI to inflate prices exponentially. Moreover, Class 2 Industries are permitted to pay incarcerated workers pennies-per-hour. In Washington alone, CI generates up to 70 million per year in sales.

In the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), Union Supply Direct (USD)—an out of state, for profit vendor—collaborates with CI on running its Quarterly Food Package and Monthly Property Package program, in which prisoners spend eight-hours-a-day on assembly lines packaging USD products sold inside prisons. These products include packaged foods, home appliances, clothing articles and religious materials such as Bibles and scented oils. CI, in exchange, receives kickbacks from USD. Failure on the part of prisoners to accept an extended job offer by the Food and Package program could result in loss of good-time, and therefore, longer stays in prison.

While incarcerated, Tash filed a prison grievance (a complaint form for incarcerated individuals), stating that because USD does not meet the criteria mandated for a company to qualify as Class 2, prisoners packaging its products must, by law, be paid minimum wage.

Not only is the company privately, rather than state-owned, he points out, but it recently released a booklet titled: Union Supply and CI Venture, which stated that 98% of its sales were to the general public.

Instead of the DOC, a CI-representative responded to his grievance. Paraphrasing the reply was simply, “As the Food and Property programs are only available to tax-supported agencies, and not the general public, they are found to be properly classified as Class 2 Industries.”

This failed to recognize that the Food and Property Package program centers around products supplied by USD, which is not Class 2, so Tash appealed the response, and was told his complaint was invalid because “the incarcerated population is the end user of the products sold.”

However, “In no way are prisoners or their families and friends a tax-supported agency,” he says.

He filed grievance after grievance, and the replies grew increasingly evasive, and at times, bazaar. One stated that because CI receives some of the products sold in the Food and Property program, that program is properly classified as Class 2.

Unfortunately, this is more of an answer than most Washington prisoners get when attempting to resolve an issue through the grievance system. Nine times out ten, complaints are sent back and complainants are told they must rewrite them, despite a recent 9th Circuit finding that DOC is required to process grievances as they come in (Richey V. Dahne, No. 17-35032 (9th Cir. 2018)

The question on the minds of incarcerated employees in WSR’s Food and Property program is, “If we’re packaging USD’s products for it, don’t we work for USD?”

This, is literally a million-dollar-question to Tash. He says the answer depends on whether or not semantics can be used to legally argue they work for CI and not USD. If not, USD owes a lot of employees and ex-employees a lot of money.

“Prisoners have been packaging their products for years,” Tash says, “and by law they were supposed to be paying them minimum wage the whole time.”

Ex-Snohomish County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, Bill Joyce, has been working on a comprehensive legislative agenda, which addresses the issue of slave labor in Washington state prisons. Joyce is serving a 380 month sentence for a deadly 2004 shooting involving a rival attorney, and has spent his time putting his experience and knowledge toward advocating for various types of reform.

In his proposal, titled, A 2021 Legislative Agenda, he argues in order for ex-prisoners like Tash to successfully reintegrate upon release, prison should closely replicate the real world, suggesting jobs in prison should pay minimum wage, and workers charged for amenities such as rent, phones, and meals.

The proposal is backed by every social justice and cultural organization operating inside WSR, as well as outside volunteers. Though Covid-19 has temporarily halted its development and submission, all parties involved hope to see it on the agenda this year.

In 2018, the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board determined that Dan Tash had served enough time, was sufficiently rehabilitated, and no longer posed a threat to society. It recommended he be relieved of his sentence, and a year later, Gov. Jay Inslee agreed. On April 26th of this year, he was released to his wife and children with a smile and a plan of action.

“I’m gonna look into the legalities of what they’re doing,” he says. “I’m gonna speak with the Department of Labor and Industries, and if I’m right, I’ll contact a lawyer because companies like Union Supply shouldn’t be able to break the law with impunity by continuing to capitalize on slave labor.”

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