Creature comforts add civility behind bars

Published On: Nov 28 2012 06:36:33 PM PST
Airway Heights Corrections Inmates
AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. -

While a lot of people think prison inmates deserve little more than just food and water, the Washington Department of Corrections sees a value in giving inmates a few creature comforts.

State prison officials are now making it easier for inmates to get things like peanut butter and hot soup inside their own cells; believe it or not, but prison inmates can purchase more than 300 items while they are behind bars including snacks like Doritos chips.

The Airway Heights Corrections Center is already baking almost all the bread needed to feed the state's inmates. Now the prison is getting into the business of supplying other prisons with commissary items.

"Our top five items are coffee and envelopes," Lindsay Konrad with the Department of Corrections said.

The stamped envelopes help inmates keep in touch with their family. Things like coffee, chips and Pop Tarts add a little civility to what would otherwise be an angry environment.  

"It charges everything. You can only push somebody down so far to where they're going to fight back. It's just much easier to do the time and fill the structure that works," inmate Terry Woodward said.

Woodward makes 80 cents an hour running the warehouse that keeps the assembly line stocked with goods inmates can purchase from the commissary. Inmates place their orders about once a week and inmate workers fill those orders with things like toiletries or spices prisoners can use to make their own meals.

"A lot of offenders buy things so they can prepare it for themselves. We all enjoy preparing something for ourselves and not have something prepared for us all the time," Tom Beierie with the Department of Corrections said.

The commissary also gives inmates a reason to work, a place to spend a small percentage of the wages they make. That's important because more than 50-percent of the inmates never held jobs before they were incarcerated.

"When you bring an offender in the first thing you have to teach them to get up every morning and come to work, you start at ground zero and teach them every aspect there is in developing job skills for the future," Beierie explained.

While inmates can earn money to buy items from the commissary, a portion of the money goes toward fines and a savings account.

"Actually correctional industries has paid off my LFOs (legal financial obligations) all the way through. It keeps me fed, keeps my weight up and its going to help and its going to help me when I get out," Woodward said.

Of the inmates at Airway Heights, 97-percent of them will get out. Denying them simple pleasures now increases the chance they'll re-offend when they are released.

Prison officials, however, insist they have not gone soft on convicted criminals. They say when the inmates can earn a paycheck and then spend it on some of the nicer things on life they are simply teaching them what the rest of us are doing on the outside world.