Correctional Industries: Valuing Profits Instead of Lives

Written by Jacob Schmitt

I had fallen so far from what I wanted in life that I was prepared to do anything to gain acceptance and approval. What I ended up with was 30 years in prison — having never shed a drop of blood in my life. For many, that is where the story would end, but for me — that’s where it began. I can be a good person whether I am in prison or not. The truly beautiful thing about this realization is that its true for all of us. Every man and woman incarcerated has the ability to be in prison without allowing prison to be in us. Granted, it takes courage and commitment to stand in the face of an environment as inherently negative as prison and say: I will be more than this. But we can do it.

December 9, 2020

For those of you that do not know what Correctional Industries (“CI”) is, I’ll give you a brief explanation. If you’re a member of the community or legislature, CI is touted as a saver of money and savior for the thousands of men and women within the Washington State Department of Corrections. CI is supposed to provide services at a reduced price, with improved quality, and the benefit of training incarcerated people with marketable job skills.

The reality is that CI is none of those things. Every operation CI takes over has a dramatic dip in quality (whether it is food, laundry, commissary, or textiles and manufacturing), a dramatic rise in costs (for taxpayers), and offers virtually nothing in the way of marketable job skills that would provide a sustainable wage after release.

For the purpose of this conversation I want to focus on CI and the operation here at Twin Rivers Unit where they operate the kitchen that provides food to the prisoner population. At this point, everyone in America knows about COVID (and my having written that word in this email will now cause this message to be flagged and screened before being sent out — which may take as long as two weeks), and the risks involved with having close contact with someone who has the virus.

For anyone associated with prison, we all know that staff are the ones who will bring the virus into this environment and infect us. Also known by anyone associated with prison is that (1) we receive horrifyingly deficient medical care at the best of times, and (2) when believed to have COVID, we are sent to be housed in the hole — where staff are abusive and treat us inhumanely.

In many ways DOC has been amazing about COVID. I have not been pat searched for months, nor has my cell been searched. Even so, staff do not social distance — even when yelling at us: “SIX FEET!!” They sit in the offices and remove their masks, eating, drinking, talking — coughing and sneezing. They sit maskless while sorting our mail — which they then wear their masks while handing out…even though the virus can remain on paper for over 24 hours.

But the most egregious show of disregard for our lives has been demonstrated by Correctional Industries. Amidst this pandemic, with everything that we know about the spread of COVID — and the risk that outside personnel pose for the prisoners within — CI has had officers pat searching every prisoner who leaves the chow hall after working their shift. Without a change of gloves, one prisoner after the next.

Only to discover that one of those officers has tested positive for COVID. Now, we have 121 prisoners on quarantine — many aged and with with underlying health conditions that increase their chances of death if they contract COVID.

With this act, Correctional Industries has shown themselves (as both an agency and the individuals who operate it) to be the monster we have long known them to be. In order to prevent the possible theft of an onion, or maybe some cheese, CI has been having prisoners pat searched for months — and finally our greatest fear is realized: That person is COVID positive.

The mail Gestapo will almost definitely stop this message from going out — there will be an attempt to silence my voice and censor this information. Nonetheless, when you do read these words, please consider them when and if you hear DOC telling you how well they’re protecting us. An onion has more value than our lives.

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