For Pendleton city officials, the deal from Oregon Corrections Enterprises was too good to pass up.
In the midst of building a new fire station on Southeast Court Avenue, a team was tasked with ordering new furnishings for the $9 million facility.
Working with a budget of $202,500, Pendleton firefighter Robert Wolf said he looked at some other vendors, but OCE was the clear choice because of its low price and quality of furniture.
The fire department was able to order desks, tables, cabinets, lockers, bed frames and other furnishings for $138,996. The furniture will all be customized to fit within the specifications of the new station and the fire department can use the cost savings for other purchases for the new station.
Public Works Director Bob Patterson was succinct in his appraisal of the contract.
“It was a damn good price,” he said.
Most of the furniture will be made in Umatilla, but Oregon Corrections Enterprises isn’t a typical vendor.
Prison labor and work training programs have existed in state correctional institutions for more than a century, but two ballot measures in the 1990s set the wheels in motion to create OCE.
Oregon voters passed Measure 17 in 1994, establishing a law that required prisoners to work or be educated 40 hours per week. But OCE wasn’t started until Measure 68 was passed in 1999, which forbid prison labor from competing with certain private enterprises.
OCE is a semi-independent state agency that reports to the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and is set up to be completely self-sustaining. That means that OCE selling products isn’t just a matter of preference, but constitutionally mandated.
“The Oregon Constitution states, in part, that ‘Prison work products or services shall be available to any public agency … and shall be used as much as possible … to support other government operations,’” states a glossy 139-page OCE catalogue.
According to OCE’s annual report, the agency generated a record $28.5 million in revenue in 2017, money that was derived from 10 OCE locations across the state prison system.
OCE sells wood products made at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, garments sewn at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, metal products fabricated at a Salem prison, and road signs produced at the prison in Ontario.
OCE spokeswoman Barb Cannard said the Department of Corrections reviews each contract it makes with a public or private entity to determine if OCE is competing with an existing vendor or business. She added that OCE has left “millions of dollars” on the table to avoid unfair competition.
Approximately 40 inmates work at the TRCI woodshop, which resembles any other industrial work floor.
During a Monday tour of the facility, inmates worked at stations dedicated to every step of wood furniture production, including computer-assisted drafting, carving, sanding, computer-assisted part manufacturing, varnishing, and upholstery.
Scott Bartholomew, an outside sales manager for OCE, said he viewed his job as “collecting homework” because the products he sells show the quality of the training each inmate receives.
He and OCE coordinator Doug Wilson expounded on the benefits of the woodshop, saying that it provided inmates with real-world experience they can use once they’re released and also acted as an incentive for good behavior in TRCI because it’s the most desired job at the prison.
The state refers to any monetary payments prisoners receive for their labor as “awards,” which is used to “promote good institutional conduct,” according to an OCE issue brief.
Most payments are determined through the Performance Recognition Awards System, which assigns points to prison laborers “based on performance and complexity of the work performed.”
PRAS payments cap out at $82 per month, although prisoners can earn additional awards if they meet certain measures for performance, safety, or behavior.
A smaller fraction of inmates are eligible for the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, a program that pays inmates a local prevailing wage when they make products that are sold to private businesses across state lines. Prison Blues at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is one of the programs eligible for the certification program.
Although inmates who do work for Prison Blues are paid wages similar to garment workers on the outside, they don’t take home most of their awards.
Only 20 percent of of the certification program award is available to the inmate for discretionary spending. The rest is split between taxes, child support, victim restitution, and program costs.
PRAS is subject to its own deductions as well, including 10 percent for court-ordered financial obligations, 5 percent for a general victims fund, and 5 percent toward a transitional savings account that’s accessible after release.
In total, Oregon Department of Corrections inmates under OCE were awarded $2.7 million in 2017. That figure was calculated after the certification program deductions but before the PRAS deductions.
Given that 1,419 inmates worked in OCE programs, prisoners earned an average of $1,902 per year.
Although private vendors wouldn’t be able to pay an employee $82 or less per month for their labor, Cannard said businesses don’t have to account for the security and staffing that comes with running the OCE program.
Although Pendleton staff said the city got a good deal for the fire department furnishings, Cannard said OCE isn’t always the lowest cost option and the organization commonly loses contracts to private companies with lower bids.
But Kelly Simon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the reason Pendleton got a “screaming good deal” was because of the prison labor system’s exploitative practices.
Simon said that although the ACLU can appreciate the training inmates receive and the contributions they make to the community through prison labor programs, the low pay and various deductions means inmates are returning to their communities “penniless” once they’re released.
Regardless of the politics behind it, the furniture for the new Pendleton fire station will be manufactured at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution and furnish the new facility when it opens next year.