Three decades ago, as get-tough-on-crime laws channeled more offenders behind bars, the Washington Department of Corrections launched a campaign to leverage profits from prisoners, says the Seattle Times. It involved compelling inmates to produce low-cost goods for state agencies at no public cost, teaching offenders new skills to help them land better jobs after release, and turning “bad people into better people and reduc[ing] crime.”
Some 1,600 incarcerated men and women in prison factories produce everything from dorm furniture to school lunches. Washington Correctional Industries generates up to $70 million in sales a year, ranking as the nation's fourth-largest prison labor program. Behind the industries’ glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can't compete with cheap prison labor, the Times said. Far from being self-sufficient, it has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.