Skip to main content

Inmates give back to their communities

Program leads to post-jail jobs

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. - People that spend time in jail in Nisqually or
Yakama are doing jobs that help pay their way or give back to the

Nisqually's jail has an average daily population of 24. Inmates performed
1,651 hours of labor in 2003, offsetting costs of incarceration by $11,574.

Yakama's jail has an average daily population of 32. Inmates performed
6,192 hours of labor, offsetting their costs of incarceration by $43,406.

Labor is valued at $7.01, the state minimum wage. Labor statistics are
compiled by the Washington state Jail Industries Board.

Statewide, local and county jails reported an average population of 11,840,
with nearly 2.6 million hours of labor performed in jail; 798,790 hours of
labor performed for public agencies; and 119,368 hours of labor performed
for the community. That's more than 3.5 million hours of labor worth almost
$24.6 million.

Not all communities and counties reported statistics. Nisqually and Yakama
were the only communities in Indian country to report.

One of the goals of the inmate labor program is to help inmates learn new
skills and, in the case of community labor, help inmates see the value of
doing work that is meaningful in their communities. This hopefully leads to
a reduction in recidivism.

In San Juan County, for example, an inmate jailed for drunken driving
offenses helped remodel and paint the local substance abuse rehab center.
He is now active in the center and is working to stay sober.

"That's the kind of stories we like to hear," said Jill Will, executive
director of the Jail Industries Board.

In Nisqually, an inmate must become a trustee to qualify for the labor
program. Trustees can't be sex offenders or have committed violent crimes
or crimes against children. Trustees work in crews of six; each crew is
supervised by two officers.

Trustees pick up litter on the reservation and in the neighboring city of
Lacey. They put up and take down fireworks stands; cut wood and clean for
elders; prepare food, clean up and maintain the elders' center; and do yard
work and maintenance at the jail.

Whether the labor program has helped reduce recidivism is not known. Sgt.
Asher Coffman has been jail operations supervisor for a year and a half.
"In that time, there's only been one person who was a trustee who came
back," he said. "He didn't re-offend, but missed a court date."

Trustees are placed on a job that matches their skills. "We try to match
the individual to the job," Coffman said. "We take someone who has existing
skills and don't want them to lose those skills while they are in jail.
They do what they used to do and they feel good about themselves."

A trustee who had worked as a painter was assigned to paint the interior of
the jail. A trustee who has worked as a carpenter was assigned to build
flower boxes for the tribal center.

In the Yakama Nation Correctional Facility, trustees do janitorial and
maintenance work, prepare and serve food and clean up.

"They're responsible for keeping the building shipshape and having it done
by 8 o'clock in the morning when I get there," said Lt. Ned Tillequots,
jail supervisor.

In the community, trustees clear brush for the tribal forestry department,
prepare the Toppenish Community Center for tribal council meetings,
maintain tribal police cars and assist the community of White Swan with its
community clean up.

For every two days they work, they get one day off their sentence,
Tillequots said.

In some cases, the jail labor program has led to post-jail careers; some
trustees have been hired by tribal forestry after their release.

Tillequots said the program has expanded in the last six to eight months;
tribal agencies and programs can now call and arrange for trustee labor.

Richard and Molly Walker are correspondents reporting from San Juan Island,
Wash. Contact them at (360) 378-6289 or e-mail