Proposed bill would pay incarcerated workers minimum wage

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A Washington state lawmaker who has spent time in prison wants the state to pay incarcerated workers minimum wage for doing their jobs.

State Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, is sponsoring House Bill 1024, called the “Real Labor, Real Wages Act,” to raise the wages to the state minimum of $15.74 per hour, The Seattle Times reported.

Simmons, who served 30 months in prison for low-level drug and theft crimes about a decade ago, said that when she was in prison she was forced to work graveyard shifts for less than 42 cents an hour.

“No one should be coerced into providing their labor, and Washington should not profit from involuntary servitude,” Simmons said in a statement.”

Colorado is the only state that pays state minimum wage for incarcerated labor. Similar legislation has been introduced this year in New York and has failed previously in Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia.

At least 80% of U.S. prison work is dedicated to maintaining facilities, working in laundry or in the kitchen, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law school.

People in Washington prisons also do farm work, clear land and do parks and recreation development, the report said. People in prison also labored for private companies, and in one example, assembled furniture for the University of Washington.

Tiana Wood-Sims spends about 30 hours a week doing laundry at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She has been incarcerated for nine years, serving a 14-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Wood-Sims makes just under $50 per month for her laundry work.

“Toothpaste is $7. Deodorant is 3 to 10 dollars … Sometimes you can’t even get all the hygiene that you need for the month,” Wood-Sims said.

In the last fiscal year ending in June, more than 1,600 incarcerated people worked 218,335 hours at Washington Correctional Industries. The program contributed $46.2 million to the Washington state economy.

If passed, the bill would cost $97.5 million annually.

Simmons said the bill was partly inspired by a jury awarding $17.3 million to immigrants held in a Tacoma detention center who earned $1 a day, and the state’s elimination of subminimum wages for people with disabilities.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Tobby Hatley said in an email that the department is working with Simmons and others on “improvements that support incarcerated individuals and the prison community infrastructure, within funding amounts appropriated.”

“We recognize that wages and gratuities paid to incarcerated individuals is a very important and complex topic that has far reaching impacts,” he added.

Republican Rep. Gina Mosbrucker of Goldendale said she opposes the bill because of the cost.

“We do want people to get job skills, and if you can learn to weld in prison, that’s a win,” Mosbrucker said. “But at the same time, I think just raising the minimum wage, without considering the outside, like the family of the incarcerated or the survivors and victims, I think that needs to be in the conversation.”

Simmons said she isn’t confident that incarcerated people will start to earn the minimum wage this year.

“But what I am striving to do at this point is at least give them a raise,” she said.