By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Pop quiz: What does it take to get a job making whole grain buns for the cafeteria at Mountain View High School in Vancouver, Washington?
Answer: A felony conviction.
At least eight school districts in the state of Washington serve baked goods made by inmates at the Airway Heights Correctional Facility, 10 miles west of Spokane.
At Airway Heights, inmates work at an on-site bakery making bread, buns, rolls, Danishes, cookies, and brownies. They’re in for drug crimes, property crimes, violent crimes, or sex crimes.
The Airway Heights prison bakery is one of about three dozen enterprises run by Correctional Industries, a unit of the Washington Department of Corrections.
Danielle Wiles, Correctional Industries program manager in Olympia, told the Labor Press the program is intended to provide cost savings to the prison system, and work experience and training for offenders for when they’re released back into the community.
Under Washington state law, prison enterprises may sell to state agencies, school districts, and non-profits, but not to the private sector. The law says Correctional Industries is not supposed to “unfairly compete with Washington businesses.” And its funds are to be invested in work programs that “minimize the impact on in-state jobs and businesses.”
But Correctional Industries does impact the private sector. Prison-made baked goods have been displacing goods made by law-abiding workers on the outside, such as the unionized workers at Franz Bakery, which has operations in Oregon and Washington.
That rankles Terry Lansing, secretary-treasurer of 1,190-member Bakers Local 114. Lansing says in the competition for school district business, Correctional Industries is undercutting family-owned Franz, a union employer since 1910.
Inmates at the Airway Heights bakery don’t pay taxes. They can’t unionize. And they’re paid 55 cents to $1.75 an hour for their work. [The state takes up to 90 percent of that for crime victim restitution, legal obligations, costs of incarceration, and savings for when they’re released.]
At Franz, by contrast, workers earn $19 to $24 an hour, with fully-paid medical and pension benefits, a guaranteed work week, and overtime pay after seven hours in a day.
“These are jobs we want to preserve,” Lansing said. “[Our members] are taxpayers, and our taxes support the school districts.”
In a 2010 interview with the Labor Press, Franz Spokane-area general manager Tim Harper wouldn’t disclose the dollar amount or volume of business lost, but said it’s significant.
“We definitely had to make cutbacks because of it,” Harper said.
Harper said 2009 was the first school year that Franz didn’t have the contract for Central Valley School District in Spokane. Employees at the Franz bakery in Spokane had children in the district, and were outraged about the switch to prison-made bread, Harper said. They spoke out at PTA meetings but got nowhere.
Franz competes with the prison bakery for school district contracts, but the company has been reluctant to go public criticizing the prison bakery. One reason is that Food Services of America, which distributes the prison-made bread to schools, is an important Franz customer. Also, Franz doesn’t want to publicly criticize the school districts for buying prison bread, since the company hopes to win back their business.
But Lansing, at the Bakers union, is free to speak his mind. He has one question for the districts: “Do the parents know you’re feeding their kids prison bread?”
For over a year, Lansing has campaigned against serving prison-made baked goods in schools.
“I am positive that most parents would not allow a time-serving convict into their kitchen to prepare their child’s meals, yet I believe that is what your School District is doing,” Lansing wrote in a letter to the Clatskanie School District.
In letters to the districts, Lansing raises concerns about safety and the ethics of forced labor.
Wiles, at Correctional Industries, has answers to some of those charges. The labor is not forced, she says. Inmates must take part in some kind of rehabilitative program, but they don’t have to work specifically at Correctional Industries. They can take classes or take part in treatment instead. Inmates can receive prison discipline for refusing some prison jobs, like cleaning, but they can’t be disciplined for refusing to work in the bakery or other Correctional Industries enterprises. Moreover, to work in the bakery, inmates must apply and be interviewed, must have served at least the last six months of their sentence without infractions, and must have a high school diploma or GED or be working toward one. As for safety concerns, Wiles says civilian staff supervise the inmates and follow all USDA and health regulations. To prevent inmates from using the bakery operation to import contraband, Wiles said, supplies are also handled by staff.
Sometimes, Lansing’s letters get a response. “The state of Washington does not fully fund education,” Walla Walla school board president Cindy Meyer replied in a letter. “Yet our expectations for quality remain high in every area. We would not be good stewards of the limited tax dollars we receive if we were to spend more for a quality product than we had to.”
Lansing has also found support among union members who serve the food, such as Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA). Last October, the OSEA local at St. Helens School District in St. Helens, Oregon, wrote to the school board formally requesting that the district’s nutrition program buy baked goods from Oregon providers, not Washington inmates.
Lansing also got the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council to include the issue in a questionnaire given to candidates seeking labor’s endorsement.
Is the Bakers’ campaign paying off? Several Oregon and Washington school districts that served prison-made baked goods last year have backed off as of this school year. It could be because of concern about bad press. Or it could be that — as several third-party distributors told the Labor Press — Franz is dropping its prices to win back the business. Lansing and the distributors also said districts have complained of poorly cut bread and other quality problems. Plus, Airway Heights bread and rolls come frozen; districts may prefer to serve fresh bread.
Lansing intends to continue the campaign.
At the upcoming Oregon AFL-CIO convention, Bakers Local 114 is introducing a resolution calling on union members to tell the Bakers Union if they see prison bread in schools, and for the Oregon AFL-CIO to demand its removal.
“It’s one thing to have your child sit on a chair made by inmates,” Lansing told the Labor Press. “It’s another to have them consume food.”
Who’s eating prison-made baked goods?
The following school districts serve baked goods produced at Airway Heights Correctional Facility:
Auburn School District
Highline School District
Federal Way School District
South Kitsap School District
Blaine School District
Spokane School District #81
Mead School District
Central Valley School District
Mt. View School District