Lawmakers clash over prison-made furniture. ‘Do you like the desk in your office? … Well you should bring one from home’

By: - January 18, 2019 4:13 am

State Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republican lawmakers shot down a bill Thursday challenging a program that pays Virginia prison inmates about 80 cents an hour to manufacture furniture for state offices, including at the Capitol and General Assembly Building.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Smithfield, said she had toured those inmate-staffed factories and said the workers, incarcerated as they may be, work voluntarily, learn skills and take pride in their labor.

She then turned to the bill’s patron, Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, with a pointed question.

“Do you like the desk in your office?”

“Not particularly, no,” Carter said.

“Well you should bring one from home,” Brewer said.

Carter says he’s working on it. His legislation was defeated on a party-line vote during an early-morning subcommittee meeting, but afterward, he tweeted a picture of a plastic card table that he said replaced the prison-made desk used by his legislative aide.

The prison labor, he argues, is not as voluntary as the state makes it sound and using inmates as a source of cheap labor incentivizes keeping people incarcerated.

“Inmates have a choice to sit in confinement or work for as little as 80 cents an hour,” he told the committee.

Under state law, state agencies, including colleges and universities, must buy the products they produce, which in addition to office furniture includes a range of items like boots, clothes and cleaning supplies.

His legislation would have allowed the prison-work program to continue but prohibit state agencies from buying the goods and instead require they be sold on the open market.

Prison officials said the bill would essentially mean the end of the program, which they said teaches inmates skills they can use to get jobs upon their release.

“The jobs that we provide are actually heavily sought after and competitive,” said Malcolm Taylor, the CEO of the agency that runs the program, Virginia Correctional Enterprises. He said about 1,300 inmates participate.

“They do take great pride in what they produce.”

Democrats on the subcommittee said they supported the vocational training the programs offer, but they questioned the low compensation provided to the inmates and whether such labor should be used to provide cut-rate furniture and supplies to the state.

“Like Del. Brewer I’ve been visiting a number of prisons and I’ve been very impressed by workforce development and career-training opportunities,” said Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, asking whether there was language that could be added to the bill that would keep the program but allow the goods to be sold on the open market.

Officials said no and the bill went down on a 4-2 vote to pass it by indefinitely for the session, with Kory and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, opposing.

As for Carter’s folding-table replacement desk, Brewer was unimpressed, tweeting: “Let me know when you move out your personal desk. That’s your aide’s office.”

Carter said it just isn’t feasible for him to completely replace all his prison-made office furniture and that in either case, doing so wouldn’t address the bigger issue he sees.

“We are taking steps as we can afford to do so. Between my (legislative aide) and I, neither of us draws a particularly high salary,” he said in an interview. “If we were to be on the hook for replacing thousands of dollars of furniture ourselves, that would create a great hardship. I’m working on fixing the systemic problem, which is our commonwealth’s over reliance on incarcerated labor.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.