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Protecting jobs.

Byline: The Register-Guard

An overwhelming majority of Oregon voters approved Measure 17 in 1994. They were sold on the common-sense concept that state prison inmates should work at least as hard as the taxpayers who foot the bill for their upkeep and that prisoners are better off putting in a hard day's work and learning trades than idling in their cells.

As reporter David Steves noted in his Dec. 23 report on Oregon's inmate work programs, prison labor has a long history in this state, dating back to the 19th century when inmates were employed in jobs ranging from processing flax to making bricks.

After the passage of Measure 17, it took corrections officials several years to make progress toward meeting its constitutional mandate of ensuring that all eligible state inmates are engaged in either full-time work or on-the-job training. By aggressively marketing inmate labor to both public and private sector organizations, state officials eventually succeeded in a big way: During the past two years, minimum security inmates worked 1.14 million hours outside prison walls.

The bulk of the work done by inmate work crews is for the government - federal and state agencies, counties, cities, school districts and port districts. But an increasing amount, currently more than fifth, is for businesses and private sector organizations.

Such gains were welcome during the late 1990s, when Oregon's economy was robust and employees were hard to find. But inmate labor has become a matter of rising concern during an economic slowdown that has given Oregon the nation's highest jobless rate.

While tens of thousands of Oregonians have lost their jobs, inmates continue to work at even higher levels than before the recession. Minimum-security prisoners are working at lumber mills, on cleanup projects and in other private sector jobs, hired by companies drawn by the prospect of paying 40 percent less than they would have to pay for noninmate workers.

Few Oregonians begrudge the jobs that prison crews do for governmental and community organizations. With limited resources, these agencies can use cheap inmate labor to do work that would otherwise be left undone. But even public sector employment of inmates can raise concerns. Last week in Medford, union members gathered to protest Jackson County's decision to hire prisoners, instead of construction workers, to do demolition and construction work.

Some private-sector employers are also speaking out about the problem of competing with inmate work programs - and of rival companies that they feel unfairly capitalize on the availability of cheap inmate labor.

Steves described how one Portland temporary agency lost out to an inmate work crew on a contract to destroy office documents. He also told of the manager of a Eugene laundry who was forced to lay off two dozen workers after losing a contract to launder garments for Sacred Heart Medical Center to a state prison laundry program.

Some perspective is in order. Oregon's inmate workforce is too small to have a major impact on the overall availability of jobs in the private sector. But state corrections officials must make a serious effort to avoid having any impact on the employment and wage growth of Oregon workers, particularly during economic downturns.

State officials say they're aware of the problem and have begun slowing efforts to expand the inmate work program. They vow to take a hard look at economic and unemployment factors before accepting private sector jobs for inmates. Earlier this month, state officials say such concerns prompted them to cancel a long-running arrangement that had dozens of inmates working at Willamette Valley lumber mills.

Such precautions are necessary to prevent a labor backlash that could damage the state's inmate work program. The Oregon AFL-CIO has warned that it may circulate a measure for the 2002 ballot that would bar any prison work programs that impede the private sector's ability to sell goods or services or opportunities for law-abiding workers.

A better solution would be for state corrections officials to pull back from private-sector employment until the economy rallies and the jobless rate drops to acceptable levels. There remains plenty of work to be done in the public sector, from improving salmon habitat to fighting forest fires to improving state parks.

At a time when the state's economy is staggering and jobs are scarce, state corrections officials should do everything possible to avoid taking jobs away from law-abiding Oregonians.
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Title Annotation:Limit state inmate work program in hard times; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 28, 2001
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