Inmates are available to work in Washington State orchards for the same hourly wage as other ­employees receive.    

  Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said the Department of Corrections has a work-release program that is much different from the highly publicized program that McDougall and Sons, Inc., Wenatchee, used last fall when it was short of harvest workers.

McDougall hired 100 inmates from Correctional Industries, which agreed to supply workers, kitchens, tents, and security for a maximum cost of $22 an hour. The long-term inmates camped at the orchard for several days while they completed the harvest.

Lin Miller, administrator at the department’s Community Corrections Division, oversees a program that allows prisoners who are within six months of being released and have a record of good behavior to transfer to a work-release facility that provides a bridge between prison and the community. They are expected to find jobs and go out to work during the day. The idea is to help them become rehabilitated into the community. There are 15 work-release facilities statewide. The three facilities in eastern Washington—two in Spokane, one in Yakima, and one in the Tri-Cities—have a total of 125 inmates.

The work site must be within commuting distance, as inmates go back to prison at the end of the day.

“They are still inmates and still serving their prison time,” Miller emphasized. “They are still subject to the rules and regulations that any inmate is.”

They use public transportation to get to work and have to follow an agreed-upon daily schedule. If they want to ride to work with someone else, that person must be approved beforehand.

“We want to know what they’re doing and who they’re hanging out with when they go out,” Miller said.

If they’re not back at prison at the expected time, escape procedures begin and an arrest warrant is issued..

No security is provided while they are working, but each one will have a community corrections officer assigned to them, who will be the main point of contact for the grower, Miller said.

“Our goal is to provide an employee for you while ­providing safety for the community.”

Growers pay them the going rate for the job. No upfront loans are allowed, and the worker cannot be paid directly. Their checks must be turned in and deposited into their inmate savings account. Some of the money is used to cover their room and board ($13 a day), and some might go towards court payments or child support.

Miller said the wages they earn boost their accounts and help them get established in the community when they get out of prison. While working, inmates must ­continue their therapy, treatment, and classes in prison.

A corrections officer visits the employer on a monthly basis to make sure the inmate is meeting the needs of the employer and to help the worker improve, if necessary,
so they are better prepared for their release. If inmates fail to abide by the rules, they can be sent back to prison. Growers can fire them if necessary.

Farmers often used the work-release program 15 to 20 years ago, Miller said, but few have taken advantage of it recently. Fazio said county sheriffs also have work-release programs that allow prisoners to go out to work during the day.

For more information on the work-release program, check the Web site default.asp.