Inmates Used By Metcalf To Call Voters

U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, campaigned hard last fall as a tough-on-crime candidate. He also hired inmates at the Monroe state prison to help him.

Campaign records show that for $9,000 a company called Washington Marketing Group employed convicted felons to dial up voters a week before the election and talk about the Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2nd District.

Voters were told the candidates' views on the death penalty, increasing taxes and property rights, and then asked whom they might vote for. What they weren't told was that the telephoned question was coming from inside the prison walls at the Washington State Reformatory.

A week later, Metcalf edged out Democrat Harriet Spanel for the 2nd District seat.

Metcalf's campaign manager and current deputy chief of staff, Chris Strow, says he didn't know the telemarketing company was using prison labor and wouldn't have used its services if he had.

"This was very much a last-second thing," Strow said.

State corrections officials say they have no problem with the prisoners' political work. But at least one influential lawmaker, state Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, does.

Inmates "shouldn't be doing any job that involves using information about the citizenry," said Ballasiotes, chairwoman of the House Corrections Committee.

Based at the reformatory, the Washington Marketing Group is one of 12 private businesses that have set up shop inside state prisons. The Marketing Group established its Monroe operation in August 1992 and is the only telemarketing company in the prison system, officials say.

There are 18 inmates on the payroll, each paid the minimum wage of $4.90 an hour, or more. At least 55 percent of their earnings are subtracted by the state to help cover room and board, contributions to a personal savings account and the crime-victims compensation fund.

Ballasiotes says some states allow prisoners to call homeowners with information about mortgage lending rates, and Idaho has some felons answering a toll-free line offering tourism booklets.

Officials at Washington Department of Corrections say they have no authority to tell prison-related companies whom to do business with. They also note that the Marketing Group does most of its work for nonprofit organizations, not politicians.

Jim Paton, owner of the Washington Marketing Group, did not return phone calls.

Strow said Paton called him about 10 days before the election and offered polling services. Since the Metcalf campaign was having trouble finding an in-state company, he said he jumped at the invitation.

Washington Marketing Group provided its inmate employees with computerized lists of names, addresses and telephone numbers provided by the campaign.

But Metcalf's staff said voters in the 2nd District don't have anything to be nervous about.

Inmates "would never have a way of getting those (telephone) numbers unless they memorized them," Strow said.