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Editorial - Working behind bars

October 20, 1997

An estimated 200 to 250 inmates would return to the old Moundsville state prison, if a proposal to expand West Virginia's prison industry program is approved. The program as presented this past Monday sounds good, but we've got some reservations about some aspects of it.

As described by Bill Duncil, the state's deputy corrections commissioner, the inmates would be bused in daily to a 40,000 square-foot building on the grounds on the Civil War-era fortress-style prison. Inmates working there now make mattresses, operate a print shop and create wood products, but officials envision a program like the one California operates, in which inmates make wiring harnesses for F-16 fighters.

Prisoners would be paid, but would receive only 20 percent of their wages, to be put in a savings account until their release. The other portion would go to crime victims, inmates' families and to defraying the cost of their incarceration.

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The program would involve prisoners working to repay their victims and earn their own keep. Who could argue with that?

Not us, but permit us to question a few details. The prison officials proposing this program say it would not take jobs away from the private sector. Inmates, they say, would do only those jobs that would be performed by low-wage workers overseas. Makes sense, but how does that prepare prison workers for the American work force after their release?

The other problem is that because Moundsville has been turned into a tourist attraction of sorts, the state can't house inmates at the work site. That means there'll be additional opportunities for escape, though there'll be additional razor-wire fencing on-site to separate the inmates from the tourists.

For future projects of this type, the best plan would be to house inmates in prisons where there's enough space on the grounds for a factory building, and where they can learn a skill that will lead to a job when their sentences are up.

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