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About the project

Sell Block is the culmination of a yearlong examination by The Seattle Times into how the Washington Department of Corrections has tried to profit from its prisoners.

The first step was to track the money. The Times analyzed 742 pages of prison financial records, obtained through public-record requests, involving the labor program, Washington Correctional Industries (CI). The Times found that millions of dollars in expenses had been diverted from the CI budget to other prison departments, serving to obscure evidence of deep losses and mismanagement.

Thousands of pages of audits, investigative files and emails were used to track how CI had failed to achieve public promises to be self-sufficient, produce low-cost goods for the state, not harm private businesses and train inmates so that they could land more jobs after release and commit fewer crimes.

To track prison labor programs nationally, the Times collected information from all 50 states and the federal government, producing a custom database and interactive map of the 542 prisons with labor programs. Overall, the Times obtained or reviewed records from more than 60 state and county agencies, including agency files stored in boxes at the Washington State Archives. Times journalists made visits to three state prisons and conducted dozens of interviews, including with CI employees, inmates, legislators, state agency investigators and private business owners.


Reporters: Michael J. Berens, Mike Baker

Photographer: Alan Berner

Project editor: James Neff

Graphic artists: Mark Nowlin, Garland Potts

Copy editor: Laura Gordon

Photo editor: Fred Nelson

Print designer: Bob Warcup

Producer/web designer: Katrina Barlow

Developer: Thomas Wilburn

Video editor: Danny Gawlowski

Researchers: Gene Balk, Miyoko Wolf