Prison work programs help local communities, save states millions, and give inmates who are mostly nonviolent offenders something worthwhile to do.
From Oregon's Bland Mountain to Georgia's Walker County, at least 14 states have inmate crews to fight wildfires. One of the country's largest programs is inCalifornia
, where 4,200 volunteer inmates none convicted of arson live at 40 conservation camps.
The inmates male and female don't just battle fires but also help out at other disasters. Recently, orange-clad inmates searched for survivors when a mudslide destroyed homes in the California city of La Conchita in January. Inmates also figured prominently in battling the Southern California fires in late 2003.
Later this month Arizona will become the second state to train female inmates to fight fires. In herState of the State
address last month, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano announced that her budget would include funding for more prison wildfire crews.
Another common prison program is dog training, now being tried in at least half the states. Convicts at the Tennessee Prison for Women train dogs to make them more adoptable and spare them from being euthanized. In Missouri, inmates at a women's prison train service dogs for the disabled, while in Alaska, inmates care for dogs that can't finish the grueling Iditarod sled race until their owners return.
Felons also help out at state government buildings. Iowa inmates got the Capitol ready for the legislative session and prepared the governor's mansion for the celebration of Iowa's new commemorative quarter last September. Volunteers from the South Dakota Women's Prison clean and garden at the State Capitol, while South Carolina'sCode of Law
requires the corrections chief to "furnish such convict labor as [the keeper of the State House] may need to keep the State House and Grounds in good order."
According to Joe Weedon, the director of governmental affairs for the American Correctional Association, some states have expanded their work programs in the past five years as the corrections community increasingly discussed how to help inmates adjust to life after prison.
Georgia is one of those states. More inmate work crews have been sent out as more counties have requested help, corrections department spokeswoman Sheree Lipscomb said.
"We're always trying to do something to get them better prepared to leave prison," she said. "If they learn a skill or trade, what better way to make them a better person when they leave?"
Corrections officials say the volunteer work benefits both inmates and communities.
For example, inmates from three Iowa prisons dismantled a greenhouse for a local church, free of charge, said Lettie Prell, the assistant to the Iowa corrections director. They used the salvaged material to build greenhouses at the prisons, one of which later grew 400 poinsettia plants for government offices around the state during the holidays.
Some work programs cater to a state's needs. In Florida, inmates at the Broward County Jail help endangered sea turtles by replacing potentially contaminated sand at their hatcheries. In Alabama, inmate work crews cleaned up after Hurricane Ivan last year. In the home state of the Kentucky Derby, inmates at Blackburn Correctional Complex take care of retired racehorses that otherwise would head to the slaughterhouse.
Prisons also work closely with charities. In at least 32 states, prisons have partnered with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates and put wards to work building cabinets, walls and sometimes homes for the needy. At North Carolina's Gates Correctional Center, inmates refurbish broken and battered bikes for needy children as part of the Bicycle Ministry.
These work programs differ from prison industry programs, in which inmates produce services or make products such as license plates and furniture to sell. Those inmates make a higher wage, and their work is done within the prison.
Eligibility for work programs differs from prison to prison, but those accepted are usually minimum security inmates. Wardens consider factors such as good behavior, time remaining on an inmate's sentence, and nature of the crime.
Compensation also varies. Georgia and South Carolina don't pay their inmates, while Oregon's fire crews earn $3 to $4 a day. Meanwhile, Kansas and Indiana pay inmates about $1 a day for community work. California inmates, who make $1 an hour while fighting fire and $1.45 a day for other conservation work, also can deduct two days off their sentence for every day worked in the camps.
States benefit plenty in the pocketbook. A spokesman for Alabama's corrections department estimated its work program saves the state about $12 million a year. Mississippi reported that offenders provided almost $20 million worth of free labor in fiscal 2003. California's conservation program annually provides 10 million hours of conservation and firefighting work, saving the state $80 million a year, a spokesman said.
But prison work programs aren't perfect. In 2001, then-Gov. Jim Hodges fired South Carolina's prisons director and scrapped the prisoner-staffed maintenance and housekeeping program at the governor's mansion when it was revealed that inmates had sex there. Inmates no longer work inside the mansion.
Prisoners also have escaped while out on work crews.
"There's always that risk, but they're under supervision," said Darwin Weeldreyer, the director of community service for South Dakota's corrections department . He pointed out that most inmates on community work crews are nonviolent offenders. "We found in South Dakota it's a great benefit to keep inmates busy. ... We haven't run into any situation where the walkaway has had such an effect that someone's requested the [work] program be done away with."
Talks with prison officials reveal several success stories: Kentucky inmates who are so good with horses that race trainers later hire them; the wheelchair-bound Pennsylvania man who came to a prison to thank the staff for training his Labrador; the Iowa town so grateful for inmates' help after a tornado that its residents invited inmates to a potluck.
It's often seen as a privilege to be accepted for a work crew.
"They get to be outside, they enjoy it, and among their peers they feel sort of in an exulted position because it is a real big deal for a person to work," said Mary Leftridge Byrd, Pennsylvania corrections' deputy secretary for specialized facilities and programs. "There are no specific perks other than what happens as a result of a good workday."