Bill would expand prisoner employment opportunities

A bill making its way through the Alaska House of Representatives has the potential to revitalize work programs for the state’s incarcerated population and fill gaps in certain industries, according to its supporters.

Sponsored by Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kotzebue), House Bill 171 would expand language in the portion of state statute that allows the Alaska Department of Corrections commissioner to enter into contracts to employ prisoners. Inmates are already employed in-house to do chore-like jobs that help maintain the facilities, said Commissioner Dean Williams during a legislative hearing on the bill April 5. Some inmates also have opportunities to go outside prisons for work, with vocational and work-release programs like those offered at Wildwood Correctional Complex.

Williams told the House Labor and Commerce Committee during the hearing that current statute language is somewhat restrictive and this bill would expand the industries and business opportunities he could look at to contract with for inmate work. Alaska prisons used to have industries programs where inmates made products that were sold, but they stopped being cost-effective. The example discussed at the hearing was high-quality furniture made by inmates in Seward, which Williams said can’t be successfully sold anymore and is currently given away or raffled off.

“In this current fiscal climate that our state is in, I would submit to you just a couple things that I think we should think about,” Williams said during the hearing. “One is I have incarcerated … individuals who are going to be with us either for short or long periods of time. Wouldn’t it be great if at the same time it brought in productive and meaningful activities to them to make my facilities safer — to make it safer not only for the inmates but for staff, and so we don’t have a situation of idle hands — but we also are able to provide certain … business opportunities that don’t exist, and to pay for our own way?”

Ideally, the bill would allow the Department of Corrections to contract with local businesses to make products or provide services that aren’t already being covered by the private sector, Williams said. The idea is to avoid competing with that sector.

Inmates would be paid minimum wage, and the department would be able to sell products to public agencies, private organizations or individuals, according to the bill text.

“Before selling a product or service, the commissioner shall consult with industry representatives in the state to ensure that the services or products will have the potential for contributing to the economy of the state and will have minimal negative effect on an existing private industry or labor force in the state,” the bill states.

Williams said part of structuring a program under this broadened language would include setting priorities for using inmate wages to pay off restitution, child support or court fees first. Westlake said during the hearing that expanded employment opportunities in prisons can be a boon to both businesses and offenders, who would have more chances to learn job skills before their release.

“They owe, they owe, they owe,” he said. “This is a way for them to try to get back on their feet, get a sense of self-worth as they work and find a job before being released.”

Locally, there is potential for a revitalized industries program, but many details remain to be hammered out, said Wildwood Superintendent Shannon McCloud.

“We have to find a niche somewhere, and I’m not sure what that niche is,” she said. “But we’re going to start researching that.”

Tim Ward, the vocational instructor for Wildwood, has already been out talking to businesses in the community to find out what kind of products they might be lacking that could be made by prisoners.

“What we’re looking to do is get with local businesses and find a product that they’re struggling to make due to costs of labor, because then we can make it at a lower price, sell it back to them and they can sell it to the public,” he said. “The idea is to not compete with the public, and we’ve got to come up with a way to do it.”

The idea of bringing back the ability for inmates to contribute to Alaska’s industries has been around for a while, McCloud said.

“The talk has been there, but nobody’s pushed forward on it,” she said. “But the commissioner has now pushed forward on this. … He’s toured the facilities, and he knows what we have, and we used to have an industries (program) here many years ago, and now we have a vocational instructor, and we have a lot of infrastructure that we could do this with.”

Some of that infrastructure includes equipment Wildwood acquired from the Palmer Correctional Center when it closed in 2016.

The name of the building where Wildwood’s vocational programs are housed — the Old Industries Building — is a nod to the facility’s former industries program. When making and selling products at Wildwood ceased to be cost-effective and the program ended around the 1990s, McCloud said the existing space and equipment were repurposed for education. Offenders at Wildwood now have a myriad of classes and certifications available to them in fields including welding and construction.

A revitalized industries program at Wildwood would not necessarily come without startup costs, McCloud said.

One challenge specific to Wildwood could be allocation of equipment, she and Ward said. The machines in the Old Industries Building are now used solely for educational programs, so a plan for sharing the equipment between two programs or allocating for additional machines would have to be worked out, they said. For example, Ward said Wildwood is looking at the possibility of expanding its existing welding shop to ideally have eight to 10 welding booths.

Staffing at Wildwood would also have to be increased to accommodate a new industries program. Ward would not be able to take it on in addition to overseeing Wildwood’s vocational programs, he and McCloud said.

Right now, Ward said the steel industry looks like the best bet for Wildwood to get involved with, should the bill pass, since Wildwood already has a metal shop.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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