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WA County Launches Slave Labor Center

Construction crews were hard at work in February, l998, pounding nails, framing walls and stirring Spackle to remodel a building adjacent to the Whatcom County (WA) Courthouse. Pictured on the front page of the Bellingham Herald , they looked like any typical hard-working bunch of all-American construction workers -- except they weren't.

They're county residents who were sentenced to jail or fines and are considered low security risks. Instead of jail time (or paying their fine), they are put to work by the county and allowed to go home at night. However, they probably don't take a taxi or stop at Burger King along the way -- the county pays them $0.00/hour for their labor.

The building, used to store records for the county Treasurer's Office until 1994, is being transformed into the Alternatives to Incarceration Center. It will house offices and a "command post" for dispensing convict slave crews who will clean up parks, perform maintenance work, pick up litter, or just about anything else the county wants done "at a minimum cost," says Whatcom County Sheriff Dale Brandland.

He said remodeling the former records storage building had cost $4,500 so far, with roofing, plumbing and electrical work still to be done. But the work done so far would have cost the county between $75,000 and $100,000 if done by professionals (i.e. with paid labor), said Larry Nims, who works for the county Parks Department supervising convict work crews.

Nims, who is also a contractor, supervises up to 20 low-risk, non-violent offenders. He said he has not had any problems so far except for two or three people who weren't working hard enough and were sent back to jail.

Sheriff Brandland ordered three vans, to allow his work crews to roll anywhere they are needed. He said there will never be a shortage of projects, and eventually would like to see his work crews hired out to government and nonprofit agencies. He said he could hire out a crew of eight to ten inmates for $25 an hour.

And if business really takes off, the sheriff can always send deputies and local police out to round up drunks, people driving on suspended licenses, marijuana smokers, prostitutes and other miscreants to keep his work crew vans rolling.

Source: Bellingham Herald

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