OLYMPIA — State Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, wants the state to pay incarcerated workers more money.
She’s sponsoring House Bill 1024, called the “Real Labor, Real Wages Act,” to raise incarcerated workers’ wages to the state minimum of $15.74. Simmons, believed to be the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the State Legislature, said when she was in prison she worked graveyard shifts for no more than 42 cents an hour, before various deductions to her paycheck.
“A lot of lawmakers aren’t prioritizing the issues of the incarcerated population because they haven’t lived that experience,” Simmons said.
Nationwide, Colorado is the only state that pays state minimum wage for incarcerated labor. In Illinois, lawmakers raised pay to $2.50 a day. Similar legislation was introduced this year in New York and has previously failed in Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. Almost all incarcerated labor in several southern states is unpaid, according to Pew Research.
At least 80% of U.S. prison work is dedicated to maintaining their facilities like laundry or working in the kitchen, according to a report by the ACLU and the University of Chicago Law school. Incarcerated workers make more than $2 billion a year in goods and over $9 billion annually in prison maintenance services, the authors wrote.
Examples of outside work in Washington included farming, clearing land and parks and recreation development, the report says. People in prison also labored for private companies, like assembling furniture for the University of Washington.
Tiana Wood-Sims spends 30-32 hours a week doing laundry at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She has been at the state prison for nine years, serving a 14-year sentence for second-degree murder.
Wood-Sims’ schedule also includes classes for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Puget Sound, caring for children who are visiting parents in the prison on weekends, teaching aerobic dance, working with staff for the student leadership program and advocating for her prison unit.
After paying court fees, restitution, state costs for incarceration, child support and a savings account for after her release, Wood-Sims makes 42 cents an hour for doing laundry, adding up to $45-$47 a month. She is not paid for her other services.
Wood-Sims said inflation outside the prison has caused prices inside to rise, but wages have not kept up, making it a struggle for prisoners.
“Shampoo is seven to eight dollars. Toothpaste is $7. Deodorant is three to 10 dollars. So we have to choose between hygiene, and sometimes you can’t even get all the hygiene that you need for the month,” Wood-Sims said.
Simmons and Wood-Sims said if people refuse to work, they get major infractions, including restricting or taking away family visits, phone and commissary privileges.
According to the ACLU and University of Chicago report, 76% of incarcerated people say refusing to work results in punishment.
Wood-Sims said she supports the “Real Labor, Real Wages Act.”
“I think that this bill would better set up incarcerated individuals for real-life experience,” Wood-Sims said. “I know that economic income, as well as housing and communal support, is very important for incarcerated individuals reentering into the community successfully.”
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, Simmons’ bill would cost $97.5 million annually.
“I don’t believe we are currently helping prisoners,” Simmons said. “I think we are spending a lot of money on incarceration, but it’s not being done in a way that will truly help people be successful when they reenter.”
She 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 they are 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.
The cost of the bill is the main reason Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, opposes it. She thinks if wages increase, half of the money should go back to the state to cover prison costs or to restitution to victims over a savings account.
“We do want people to get job skills, and if you can learn to weld in prison, that’s a win. You can take that skill set upon reentry,” 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 is not feeling confident that incarcerated people will get minimum wage this year.
“But what I am striving to do at this point is at least give them a raise and a plan towards phasing in until we get to minimum wage,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that when in prison, Tarra Simmons made no more than 42 cents an hour after deductions. That was the wage before deductions, she said.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.