INSIDE OREGON'S PRISON WORKFORCE
Are prisoners in Oregon exploited for corporate gains while making slave wages working menial jobs, or are they gaining skills that will help them succeed after their release?
Oregon’s prisoners work in four different capacities: for the Department of Corrections in jobs needed for a prison’s daily operation; in a variety of work-training programs; on DOC-run work crews; or for Oregon Corrections Enterprises, a semi-independent state agency created to put inmates to work.
At Oregon State Penitentiary, entry-level workers in Oregon Corrections Enterprises' laundry facility earn about $70 to $80 a month — nowhere near minimum wage. But even if the Department of Corrections wanted to pay inmates minimum wage, it couldn’t afford it. Oregon’s prisons couldn’t operate without their underpaid inmate workers.
Jamie Pierce, 40, said he worked various jobs, “anything from line server to scullery, which is washing dishes, to floor crew,” during the three times he’s been incarcerated. When asked if he gained any skills from these DOC jobs, he said, “Absolutely not.” However, that changed when he moved into management in the laundry facility. “I feel like if I was given that skill my first time, maybe I wouldn’t even be here this time,” he said.
Education assessment is one step in the initial intake process for all inmates. As of 2014, of those who entered prison without a high school diploma or equivalent, 67.1 percent were released having earned a GED.
However, with a statewide prison population of nearly 15,000 inmates, education programs are few and far between. GED and adult basic education programs are standard fare at all 14 of Oregon’s correctional facilities. Beyond that, however, inmates are left with few options. Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison, offers the widest range of courses, including a hair salon and a barista training program. But at other facilities, there isn’t much available to provide inmates with an education that can help them succeed outside of prison.
One of the biggest roadblocks to expanding education programs, as with many state-run programs, is adequate funding.