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.
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 the convicts don't make the best tailors. And, 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 the maximum security state penitentiary in Walla Walla, acknowledges that it sounds like an extraordinarily elaborate prank, but she heard from guards at several facilities that inmates were intentionally spacing buttons far apart, and otherwise tampering with the guards' clothing.
"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 lawmaker -- who made national headlines last year after delivering a heartfelt speech on the House floor in favor of gay marriage -- says the uniform issue was raised around the same time that news broke about Vermont inmate laborers sneaking a pig into the logo for that state's police force. The timing aroused suspicion that the uniform chicanery was another subtle form of rebellion by disgruntled jailbirds.
In Washington, inmates who qualify for work programs get paid an hourly wage for their labor, but the state withholds income to pay their child support, cost of incarceration, and victim compensation, so there's not much incentive to produce fine craftsmanship. Beyond the uncomfortable sexiness of the uniforms, guards complained about zippers breaking, buttons falling off, and colors "turning from navy blue to purple in no time."
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 the prisoners.
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?"