The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

January 15, 2011

Benefits of inmate labor

City, county, TDCJ discuss program

HUNTSVILLE — Huntsville is in a unique position unlike any other place in Texas. With five Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison units inside the city limits, along with the Walker County Jail, inmate work crews are available for jobs from landscaping to small construction projects at almost no cost to the city or county.

Besides the obvious benefit of free labor, there are hidden bonuses to allowing inmates to get out of their cells and work outside. Steve Fisher, Walker County jail administrator, said he gets many requests from inmates asking to be put on outside work crews.

“They want to get out of the cell and move around,” he said. “They enjoy getting out. It makes their time go faster and it encourages good behavior. Our goal with the jail is to give back to the community as much as we can. Walker County ought to be one of the cleanest counties with as many prisons as we have and the jail.”

City manager Bill Baine said using inmate work crews is one of many ways he seeks to cut costs for taxpayers. He said his number one concern is public safety and making sure nonviolent trustees are the ones chosen for work crews – a job he feels TDCJ does reliably.

“You always hear, 'We should have the cleanest county,' ” he said. “The city will continue to try to get as many (inmate) squads as we can. The needs of the city are almost infinite, and without the convicts helping keep the numerous creeks clear, we'd be in serious trouble.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the only state agency with its headquarters outside Austin, has a stake in Huntsville and its beautification, Baine said. With several ideas in the pipeline, Baine said, he believes the use of inmate work crews will only increase in the years to come.

“TDCJ lives here and they're stakeholders. They try to help us out the best they can,” he said. “We're thankful for their help and we look forward to TDCJ contributing to our parks and community in the future. We do have a vision of things along Town Creek and at Kate Barr Ross park and having them as a resource helps us.”

TDCJ seeks to help any nonprofit municipality, said Michelle Lyons, director of public information for TDCJ. These entities can request assistance from one of the TDCJ's community work squads for clean up, maintenance or landscaping.

“TDCJ work crews assist cities and counties, as well as school districts in various projects,” she said. “There is no fee incurred by the municipality — the labor is provided free of charge. It's our way of serving the communities where our units are located.”

The only expense the city incurs in hiring an inmate work crew is providing lunch for them, Baine said. Matt Lumpkins, the city's director of community services, said inmate crews are appreciative of any meal they’re given, but the overwhelming requests from inmates are for fried chicken.

Baine said the cost of a meal is a small price to pay for a hard day's work.

“We provide a lunch because it's not feasible to shut down the crew and move them back to their unit for lunch — they would lose half their day,” he said. “Our cheapest regular employee costs about $10 an hour and with the benefit load added, employees by and large cost me on average $22 or $24 an hour.”

If you assume that using offender labor is only half as effective as full-time freeworld labor, that cost per hour would go down to $12 to $14 an hour.

“Capturing a lunch is not over $7.50 for the whole day,” he said. “Plus, employees have to have tools and trucks. Typically, what we do for offender vehicles is we use older vehicles in our fleet. We also have a trailer with a Port-a-Potty to accompany them, and we provide the tools. We have a city person on-site making sure the spirit of things is done. The supervisors or bosses (from TDCJ) know more about landscaping and upkeep than the public would suspect.”

Working on these crews is good experience for inmates, who gain landscaping knowledge, which makes them more equipped to maintain TDCJ prisons and their outbuildings, Lumpkins said.

“These crews assist in infrastructure of their own units, too,” he said. “They enjoy it and they take pride in the jobs they've done.”

The Holliday Unit has a crew that helps maintain Kate Barr Ross park. The Goree Unit has a work crew that helps maintain the Sam Houston Statue and Visitor's Center and the Ellis Unit crew maintains the city's creeks. The Walls Unit crew assists in cemetery maintenance and sidewalk cleanups in town while the Wynne Unit crew helps keep the city's garage and fleet area clean, Lumpkins said.

“The county (jail)  crew maintains an area for us,” he said. “They mainly help downtown with our Main Street area.”

Fisher said county crews are available free of charge to any area nonprofit group, as well as city and county government.

“We try to give back to the community as much as we can,” he said. “We provide mainly physical labor with litter control and a couple of days a week, we do nothing but pick up trash around the county. We're trying to help clean up the county as much as possible.”

Work crew members are chosen based on their criminal history, as well as their behavior while inside the jail, Fisher said. Being able to work outdoors is a tool Fisher said is useful in encouraging good behavior in jail inmates.

“We select what's best to put out there to give back to the community,” he said. “If a person calls in, we try to get out there and help clean them up.”

In addition to the downtown area, Fisher said, county crews assist with maintaining the high school practice fields, the triangle of landscaping at the junction of Interstate 45 and Highway 75 North, as well as site preparation and clean up during the Walker County Fair and Rodeo.

“We have so many nonprofit organizations we've assisted,” he said. “We want to give back as much as we can.”

 

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