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PLN editor quoted in article about prison labor programs

USA Today, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN editor quoted in article about prison labor programs - USA Today 2011

Prison work crews cut in cost-savings move

By Kevin Pieper, USA TODAY

Sept. 13, 2011

Prison inmate labor programs, long considered a lower-cost option for needed public work projects such as clearing debris and cutting weeds on highways, are increasingly facing elimination or reduction because of budget issues.

Michigan and North Carolina are the latest to completely eliminate their programs, and Florida reduced its program by nearly 40% this year.

Michigan lawmakers stopped funding the Michigan Department of Corrections' 15 crews this year, even as more requests for inmate labor poured in from communities.

"We actually stopped all but one work crew (which the requester fully funded) in September 2010," according to Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman John Cordell.

It cost Michigan taxpayers $10 million last year to operate the crews. Most of that cost was for transportation and supervision of the inmates, he said.

Cordell said there are plans to reinstate inmate crews Oct. 1, but with a major difference.

"We will have to charge the entities who use the crews," Cordell said. "We just can't subsidize the program anymore."


•Florida lawmakers cut $24 million from the Florida Department of Corrections 2010-11 budget, which resulted in the elimination of 71 of state's 184 public work squads, state DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff said.

•North Carolina, which cut funding for all 127 of the Department of Corrections' Community Work Program crews in 2009, added back 39 crews last year, only to cut them again in a new round of budget cuts, according to Keith Acree, Department of Corrections public affairs director.

Acree said North Carolina spent $4.78 million operating the crews during the 2008 fiscal year, the last period when the Community Work Program was in full swing.

•New York lawmakers are in the midst of closing seven minimum to medium security prisons, which may result in a reduction of its inmate work crews.

"That's where the work crews come from," said Peter Cutler, director of public relations for New York Department of Corrections. "And, yes, there has been some discussion of scaling back the crews."

The closures are cause for concern in some municipalities that are used to the availability of prison labor.

"There was a massive uproar across the state," North Carolina's Acree said. "Communities relied on the crews."

In McDowell County, N.C., inmates with the Community Work Program (CWP) did everything from concrete work at a local college to building a pole barn for a farmers' market in the city of Marion.

"Maybe it (CWP) was costing the state money," said Gloria Burrow, executive director for the Volunteer Center at McDowell County, "but it was saving us money."

According to Burrow, CWP crews worked a combined 90,339 hours valued at $903,390 for McDowell County in 2009.

The story is similar in Michigan.

In the central Michigan town of Ionia, inmates helped with everything from mowing roadsides and snow removal to park maintenance and fall leaf removal.

"Some of these things just aren't getting done with the same level of frequency," City Manager Jason Eppler said.

Florida officials have sent the remaining public work squads to the most fiscally constrained counties, Rackleff said.

According to Rackleff, the department's Public Work Squad inmates worked 6.5 million hours in Florida communities in fiscal year 2008-09, saving the state's taxpayers more than $57.5 million.

"The crews play a vital role in these counties," Rackleff said.

One prison-rights advocate, however, disagrees, saying the programs may actually be hurting local economies. "When a prisoner gets a job, they're taking a job from someone else in the community," said Paul Wright, editor of the Prison Legal News magazine and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. Cutbacks in inmate labor programs "may be putting jobs back in the community."

Wright, who has studied inmate labor issues for more than 20 years, said he has seen a trend in program cutbacks and is aware of about 10 states where they have already been cut or scaled back.

California does not have a prison inmate labor program and never has, corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said.

Some states, including Arkansas and Colorado, continue to have active programs.

"We have no lack of requests for our maintenance crews," Arkansas Department of Corrections North Central Unit Warden David White said. "The projects we take are things that simply wouldn't be done otherwise."

Contributing: Pieper also reports for The Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Ark.



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