Inmate jobs scarce

By the Associated Press and the East Oregonian

PORTLAND - More than four years ago, Oregon voters approved a law requiring prison inmates to work a 40-hour week to help pay for their prison stay and make restitution to victims and communities.

To date, just under 60 percent of eligible inmates are fulfilling the voters' mandate, and corrections officials estimate it will take at least eight more years to employ all the state's eligible prisoners.

The percentage of inmates working is about the same at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, said Kathy Jackson. Limited space is a problem, but EOCI is working to create more work opportunities while pairing that experience with basic education, life skills and substance abuse classes, she said.

Compliance with Measure 17 could suffer if Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposal gains support. He proposes cutting the 1999-2001 inmate work program budget from $14.4 million to $9 million.

Kitzhaber said he is not trying to stall inmate work programs.

However, he added, ''We need to ask ourselves, 'What is the price for full compliance, and are we willing to pay it?'''

Creating inmate work in Oregon so far has required a combination of generous general fund support - $34 million by the end of the budget biennium - and the aggressive pursuit of private partnerships and contracts.

State Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, who sponsored the measure in 1994, plans to seek even more financing.

''I've had to tell these idiots over and over again that the measure had to do with community benefit,'' said Mannix, who will play an influential role in the debate as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which handles prison issues. ''If inmates help a community at a cost lower than outside workers could have provided it for, then taxpayers have come out ahead, even if the state has to underwrite some of the cost.''

Legislators in both parties agree inmate work will become a center of debate in the session. But where that will lead is uncertain.

''This is not something I expect to break down party lines,'' said State Rep. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who supports the idea of inmate work but worries about its cost. ''I think everyone will look at the issue, listen and decide where we should go next. Where that is, I don't know.''

Kitzhaber said figuring out how the program should be implemented is a monumental task.

''We've bumped into security risks, taken jobs away from law-abiding citizens and competed with the private sector,'' he said. ''That's happening at the same time as we're paying millions to get the program up and running. I don't think voters intended these things to happen.''

Corrections officials have faced serious challenges finding jobs for the 6,688 prisoners who are eligible. Prisons don't have enough space to employ more inmates on-site. Transporting them and monitoring them are costly. And Measure 17 mandates that inmate work go beyond busy work.

''You can't have inmates cleaning the same toilets three times because the constitution says the work has got to be 'meaningful,''' said Nancy DeSouza, spokeswoman for the Corrections Department's Inmate Work Programs.

''Most taxpayers didn't think about the cost to the state,'' DeSouza said. ''They thought we would be able to immediately fire up all these businesses and sell products that wouldn't compete with business or hurt anybody.''

A Eugene company that made furniture and tents for state parks cried foul when the contract went to prison workers. And a construction labor union objected when inmate work was used to help build the Umatilla prison.

Two dozen employees were laid off in October when Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene opted not to renew its contract with a local laundry and sent its linens to the Oregon State Penitentiary instead.

''The fact that we lost the contract in and of itself is not the issue for me,'' said Bill Inge, general manager for the Eugene branch of American Linen. ''The issue is, and always has been, that here you have a publicly supported enterprise that's competing with the private sector. In this case, it's convicted convicts taking away the jobs of law-abiding, dedicated people on the outside.''

Kitzhaber says its the workers outside the prisons who need to be protected.

''Although we've been pursuing private partnerships to make this program work, we're starting to bump into instances where people are losing jobs they need,'' he said.

DeSouza said it was unfortunate that workers were laid off but corrections should not be criticized for doing what voters ordered it to do.

''Competition with the private sector is the reality of what we've been charged to do,'' DeSouza said. ''That's a reality that every legislator knows, the governor knows and the public knows. These issues are going to come up.

''If the people of Oregon decide to repeal Measure 17, or alter it, we'll do that.''