Compromise Inmate Work Program Wins Panel’s OK
Gov. George Deukmejian’s long-stalled effort to amend the state Constitution and allow prison convicts to work in private enterprise to help pay their room and board cleared a steep legislative barrier Tuesday.
Over the opposition of organized labor, the heavily rewritten proposal narrowly cleared the Assembly Public Safety Committee with the key vote of liberal Democratic Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman of Los Angeles.
For decades, organized labor has almost effortlessly crushed similar attempts to employ prison inmates at private jobs. Likewise, the Democratic-dominated Public Safety Committee long has constituted a stiff roadblock for prison “reform” efforts.
Major features of the compromise negotiated over the past month by Friedman and representatives of Deukmejian would prohibit the use of prisoners as strikebreakers and the employment of inmates to displace California workers.
Friedman, one of the Legislature’s most liberal Democrats, joined Assemblyman William P. Baker of Danville, one of its most conservative Republicans, in pushing the Deukmejian plan through the committee.
“This is a creative and intelligent step in the right direction,” Friedman said of the compromise. A spokesman for Deukmejian said the governor “strongly supports the measure in its current form.”
In his State of the State speech in January, Deukmejian proposed repealing the constitutional prohibition against using state prisoners to perform labor for private businesses. Faced with a dramatic increase in the prison population and a tight budget, he said prisoners should help pay for their keep, make restitution to their victims and participate in mandatory savings plans.
Organized labor denounced the proposal as another attempt to create a “captive labor force” that would displace working men and women and leave prisoners exposed to employer exploitation.
Originally, Deukmejian called for employing 7,000 prison inmates in private industry tasks, ranging from assembling high-tech parts and equipment to making clothing and sorting garbage.
The compromise calls for a maximum of 2,000 volunteer prisoners to participate in private employment, which would be conducted only on the grounds of state prisons. The Legislature could allow more prisoners to work if the program operated successfully.
Prisoners would be paid wages comparable to those paid locally for similar work, or at least at the level of the federal minimum wage. Upon parole, inmates who successfully participated in the program would receive job placement and counseling services.
Veteran California labor leader John F. Henning, executive secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, who has battled similar proposals for years, criticized the amendments as “plastic.”
“You’re still dealing with private business exploiting prisoners for their own profit,” said Henning, whose testimony fell far short in its intensity of only a few months ago when he angrily denounced it as a “turning back of the clock of history.”
About 7,000 state inmates now work in prison industry programs that produce goods ranging from license plates to office furniture. The office furniture is sold only to government entities and does not compete with privately manufactured goods on the open market.
Friedman joined three Republicans and conservative Democratic Assemblyman Gary A. Condit of Ceres to send the proposal to the Ways and Means Committee. Two Democrats voted no and another abstained.
If approved by the full Legislature, the proposal would appear on the 1990 ballot. It would establish for adult prisoners a private work program patterned after a 1984 program created for California Youth Authority inmates, who technically are exempt from the constitutional ban on inmate labor.
In a separate action, the committee killed an “anti-gang” bill by Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) that would have allowed police to randomly stop and search vehicles for guns when a city council or board of supervisors declared a local state of “extreme peril” because of gunfire.
Davis noted gang-related “murder rampages” during recent weekends in Los Angeles and said his bill would allow law enforcement authorities to make a “reasonable search under the circumstance.”
The bill received only three favorable votes of the five needed for approval.