Corrections officers push lawmakers for better uniforms

MONROE — The way Carl Beatty sees it, the uniform he wears should reflect the pride he takes in his job.

Such was the sense the Desert Storm veteran had when he served 18 years in the U.S. Marines on active duty and in the reserves.

These days, Beatty can’t say the uniform he wears matches the pride he takes in his job as a corrections officer at the state prison in Monroe.

“The uniform is very poor quality,” he said. “It doesn’t hold up to what we do. It doesn’t stand up to the rigors of our job. This has been a real sore spot for us for several years.”

Beatty and corrections officers across the state have taken their case for better threads to Olympia. They want the Legislature to sack their garment makers — the inmates the officers are charged with keeping in line.

Inmates at three prisons make anywhere from 55 cents to $1.55 an hour sewing uniforms as part of the state’s Correctional Industries program. The state-run industries provide inmate jobs, such as making license plates and furniture. The idea is to cut the costs of goods for public agencies and non-profit groups.

The uniforms are provided to officers at no cost, an arrangement backed up in state law.

House Bill 2346 would remove the requirement that the corrections officers wear the inmate-sewn uniforms. The bill passed, 92-3.*

Industrial sewing employs 100 inmates and eight corrections staff.

Other state law officers are issued uniforms bought on the open market.

Washington State Patrol troopers wear taxpayer-financed uniforms provided by a private company. The contract includes include pants, shirts, coats, shoes, belts, hats and bow ties.

Uniforms and other supplies provided under the contract cost $611,000 in 2011 for 623 troopers, Washington State Patrol spokesman Dan Coon said.

Corrections officers are required to wear the inmate-made uniforms.

A financial analysis estimated it could cost about $311,000 more a year to pay for corrections officer uniforms if the contract was open to bids.

Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, said he has seen firsthand examples of shoddy workmanship on the uniforms. He supported the House bill.

“I think it’s the least we can do,” he said.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said he understands the officers’ desire to get better-quality uniforms.

“They are frustrated,” Sells said. “How they look affects how they are received.”

Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Edmonds, voted against the uniform bill.

She’s a newly appointed member of the Correctional Industries advisory board.

“I think there are some questions about the Legislature intervening in what I think should be a conversation taking place between the Department of Corrections and Correctional Industries,” she said.

Roberts also said she has seen good work in other areas, such as inmate-made furniture that is used in college dorms.

“I think it’s important we provide work opportunities,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

*Correction, Feb. 16, 2012: The House bill passed, 92-3. An earlier version of this story stated that a different version of the bill passed.

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