Hundreds of new state laws enacted by the legislature earlier this year took effect last week, including one measure that aims to keep Washington prison inmates from outfitting guards in uncomfortably revealing uniforms.
The new law is the result of HB 2346, sponsored by Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Republican from Walla Walla. The bill, approved almost unanimously by the state House and Senate, proposed a minor but significant change to an RCW that requires state agencies to utilize prison labor whenever possible for goods and services.
Until now, one of the inmates' jobs included sewing the very uniforms worn by their guards. The gaping flaw in that system, according to Walsh and several correctional officers who testified throughout the legislative process, is that convicts don't make the best tailors. In some instances, the inmates were supposedly putting one over on their overseers by crafting uniforms that, when donned by female guards, resembled something better suited for a sorority Halloween party.
"There was some hanky-panky going on with the uniform-making," Walsh explains. "The seams were a little tight on the seat of the pants on the men, and there was some gape around the bra area on the women's blouses . . . One lady told me she had a thick gap and you could look right into her shirt."
Walsh, whose district includes a maximum-security state penitentiary, says she heard from guards at several facilities that inmates were intentionally spacing buttons far apart and otherwise tampering with the guards' clothing. In addition to the uniforms' uncomfortable sexiness, guards complained about zippers breaking, buttons falling off, and colors "turning from navy blue to purple in no time."
"It was a little bit of humor as far as the whole situation, but it's an issue of pride and performance and professionalism for these correctional officers," Walsh says. "And they deserve that. These guys have to look professional. They're overseeing inmates. There's a respect factor."
The new state law exempts only the Department of Corrections from the prison-labor mandate, meaning inmates will still manufacture aprons for cooks and other types of clothing. Private companies already supply uniforms for other state law-enforcement agencies, and, incredibly, the Office of Financial Management projects that the recent changes will actually save money in the long run because the private sector produces uniforms more cheaply and efficiently than prisoners do.
Finally, Walsh notes, the new law also addresses a potential safety issue, as inmates will no longer have the opportunity to work on an assembly line that offers access to the perfect disguise for an escape attempt. "If you're giving inmates the materials to make officer uniforms," she says, "what's going to stop them from throwing one of those uniforms on and walking out the door?"