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Legislator wants to pay inmates minimum wage for prison jobs

Current pay for prisoners ranges from 65 cents to $2.70 an hour.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The state of Washington saves millions by paying inmates pennies per hour for work done behind bars.

A state legislator wants to start paying inmates minimum wage for prison jobs.

Inmates are paid to work in prison kitchens, they build office furniture and assemble eyeglasses.

According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), 1,600 offenders currently work in-custody jobs. They pay between 65 cents to $2.70 per hour.

DOC spokesperson Chris Wright said those are “one of the top hourly rates in the country.”

“This is an evolution of slavery,” said state Representative Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton.

Simmons is believed to be the first person convicted of a felony to get elected to serve in Olympia.

She served a 30-month prison sentence for drug and theft charges. She worked in the kitchen, laundry room, and as a custodian.

“When I was incarcerated I was paid 42 cents an hour,” said Simmons.

Her proposal would place half of an inmate’s earnings into an account that could not be accessed until the inmate’s release.

"If people can leave with enough money to have transportation, for housing, clothing, food and potentially some job training, hopefully they will have a better chance at not coming back," said Simmons.

Simmons said the issue will come up for debate in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January.

Republican Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said the inmates are enough of a tax burden on the state.

“To me, it doesn’t make much sense,” said Fortunato, “There’s no end to what we can do with other people’s money.”

Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, said he doesn’t think many Washingtonians consider this a priority issue.

“Our funds would be better spent helping people get out of tents and into treatment and stable housing,” said Gildon.

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