Wednesday, April 23 2014, 09:23 AM MDT
Prison Inmate Work-Program Competes With Private Business
By Matt Gephardt
Produced by Michelle Poe
Edited by Aaron Colborn
Photography by Brian Morris and Mike Sadowski
(KUTV) At Creative Expressions in Murray, dozens of people are employed to create and distribute custom printed, sewn and embroidered clothing. The business began more than 30 years ago in owner Hydee Willis’ garage. Her business has grown now and in her decades of experience Hydee knows how to manage the professional hurdles. But now Hydee says she is facing a challenge with which no small business owner can compete: the Utah State Prison fighting her for customers.
Hydee says the prison competing for business first came to her attention when she saw a February flyer from Utah Correctional Industries (U.C.I.). The flyer advertises that U.C.I. can do all of the work currently done by Hydee's employees using inmate labor.
Hydee says that she and her colleagues fear that if the prison can do the work with inmate labor than it will cost people jobs.
“We could just fire all of our employees and send it all out there. It would be cheaper," Hydee said.
Hydee says U.C.I. has unfair advantages. “The prison has a lot of benefits. They have an unlimited work force. They don't have a lot of people calling in on sick days and showing up late."
Worried about the future for herself and her employees, Hydee asked Get Gephardt to investigate.
Utah Correctional Industries is a state agency that puts inmates to work doing all sorts of different jobs. The skills the inmates learn behind bars can help them obtain jobs when they are released. It's not slave labor. Inmates are paid a wage close to minimum wage. The work is traditionally done for government agencies to save tax payers money not for businesses.
That is a point that U.C.I.'s website once made clear. As of last month, it read, U.C.I. is "not in competition with local businesses in the state of Utah for private sector funds." Now that line has disappeared. It was erased from the website just one week after Get Gephardt first contacted the Utah Department of Corrections requesting information about U.C.I.
A public records request revealed that U.C.I. averages $258,667 private-sector dollars a year just from the sewing, printing and embroidering divisions of U.C.I. Utah Department of Corrections spokesperson Steve Gehrke says that number includes $231,467 that comes from working for businesses outside of Utah.
Gehrke said the letter Hydee received never should have been sent out. He points out that U.C.I. legally has the right to do work for private business but they have what he calls a "gentleman's agreement" not to go out and advertise that fact.
“We don't want to go out there and say, look we're better than ‘X’ company we can do it for cheaper, we can do it better, things like that. That's what we avoid doing," He said.
U.C.I.'s furniture catalog however does advertise in that way. It reads, "Because we utilize offender labor, our prices ... are below that of our competition." Gehrke says that the catalog is not sent to the public but rather to taxpayer-funded groups with which U.C.I. does prefer to do business.
"What we are doing is passing on a savings to like the cities and [the Utah Transit Authority], and to state agencies that function off tax payer dollars," Gehrke said.
On the contrary, U.C.I. does target private business on their website. It reads that U.C.I is available to do embroidery work for anyone that has a "work event," "community service project," "school event," or even "a smaller event like a family reunion."
Gehrke relented that perhaps those phrases should not appear in the U.C.I. website, but he maintains that Utah Correctional Industries is allowed to do work for anybody under state law.
“It's not our job to change state law," he said.
On February 1, 2013, lawmakers met to discuss U.C.I. in a subcommittee meeting. Acting Department of Corrections Director Mike Haddon said on the record that U.C.I. is “not really allowed to do competition with the private sector."
His was a sentiment echoed by subcommittee co-chair, state senator Daniel Thatcher.
“Understand that U.C.I. can only do work for state agencies,” he said. "U.C.I. does not compete with private business."
Get Gephardt contacted Senator Thatcher who said when he made those comments in the subcommittee meeting he believed that what he was saying was true and he has since been corrected. He does say that he is concerned any private sector funds are going to U.C.I. However, Senator Thatcher says that “U.C.I. is not getting enough work from state agencies.” He says that a lot of state work that should be going to U.C.I. by statute is being given to the private sector and that prevents U.C.I. from hiring/rehabilitating enough inmates. Thatcher says U.C.I. currently employs roughly 100 inmates when 500 would be employed if U.C.I. got all more government work.
As for Hydee, she says she just wants U.C.I. to stick to their original promises and not take private business to the prison.
“Why should they be taking business away from the local community?" she asked.
(Copyright 2013 Sinclair Broadcasting Group)