Inmates saving money for Palm Beach County cities

 

Inmates saving money for Palm Beach County municipalities

Those crews you see cleaning city parks, mowing cemeteries and picking up trash along streets and drainage canals might not be what you think.

In four Palm Beach County cities, they’re not municipal employees.

They are prison inmates.

They report to work in nondescript vans wearing light blue jumpsuits with white stripes down the legs and orange safety vests with the letters “DC” on the back, and they are under the control of the Florida Department of Corrections. And some work for free.

Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee-based nonprofit, nonpartisan taxpayer research group, sees inmate work programs providing a public benefit while training inmates to work. Even though having inmates work in public involves some risk, Calabro said, it’s better to put inmates to work than to hold them idle inside prisons.

Not everyone agrees, however.

Prisoner rights advocate Paul Wright, editor of Lake Worth-based “Prison Legal News,” disagrees.

“That sounds like plain old exploitative slavery to me,” Wright said, noting that inmates should have a choice about working and should be paid. “I don’t think exploiting people makes any kind of work ethic.”

Inmates on labor squads live at work camps such as the Martin Work Camp in Indiantown or road prisons such as the Loxahatchee Road Prison near the South Florida Fairgrounds. In many cases they go unnoticed in the communities they serve as they save taxpayers money.

State prison inmates who have completed part of their sentences are often moved to lower security work camps and road prisons, where they are required work for no wages as part of their sentences.

In addition to providing low-cost labor for Greenacres, Lake Worth, Wellington and Royal Palm Beach, crews of inmates work on state roads for FDOT and perform a variety of maintenance jobs for the South Florida Water Management District.

Besides the cost savings to taxpayers, the Corrections Department says work squads provide inmates with work experience and skills that help them earn a living after they’re released. Guards who supervise two Palm Beach County work squads said some of the men had never handled a shovel or a weed-eater before they began working as inmates.

But Steve Kreisberg, collective bargaining director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, doubts that inmates are learning marketable skills in low-skill jobs. He argues that inmate work crews take jobs from people who need them.

“It’s a way for cities and counties to exploit some low-cost labor at the expense of other people who need those jobs,” Kreisberg said.

Cities and government agencies harness the power of inmate labor through contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections. Cities and the water district pay the salaries of DOC guards to oversee the inmates and cover the cost of the inmates’ transportation.

Cities in Palm Beach County pay about $58,000 a year for a crew of five to seven men. The water district pays $60,000 annually per crew. The Department of Transportation pays the Department of Corrections $10.45 an hour for each inmate, revenue that state prison officials put back into the prison system’s general revenue fund.

All four cities using prison workers say it makes good financial sense.

  • Greenacres City Manager Wadie Atallah estimates that his city’s contract with the Department of Corrections for a crew of six inmates who work five days a week saves city taxpayers $77,000 annually.
  • In Royal Palm Beach, officials say the two-inmate crew that maintains Commons Park under supervision of a city employee saves village taxpayers about $73,000 a year.
  • An inmate crew does landscaping work throughout Lake Worth, collects trash after special events and cleans up the city baseball fields after weekend games, said Chris Kibben, supervisor of the city’s grounds maintenance and cemetery divisions. Kibben said inmates help fill a labor void that occurred after the city laid off grounds maintenance employees in 2011. Overall, Kibben said the city gets more work done through its $58,000 contract for a squad of inmates than it could get by using that amount of money to hire employees.
  • Wellington’s contract for an inmate crew that maintains environmental preserves is a “good bargain,” said Jim Barnes, the village’s director of operations.

Statewide, about 10 percent of the state’s approximately 101,000 inmates live at work camps or road prisons and work during the day for no pay.

According to the Department of Corrections, inmate work squads performed 5.8 million hours of work and provided a net savings of $46 million to Florida taxpayers during the 2011-12 budget year by doing jobs that include cleaning roadways, grounds and building maintenance, painting, construction projects, moving state offices and cleaning forests.

Guards who supervise the inmates say the men would rather be out working in places such as the 365-acre Wellington Environmental Preserve, Pinecrest Cemetery in Lake Worth, Commons Park in Royal Palm Beach or Freedom Park in Greenacres than staring at razor wire in the work camps and road prisons where they live.

Inmates who work in cities and on public land are considered low flight risks. They earn minimum custody or community custody status after serving part of their sentences. Inmates convicted of sex-related crimes are not eligible for public work programs.

Many of the inmates on work squads are near the end of their sentences — or nearing the point at which they will be moved into work release, meaning they can work for pay in private sector jobs and return to prison at night.

“If they run, they will get seven years in prison,” said Royce Marlow, assistant warden of operations at Martin Correctional Institution. “It’s not worth it. The risk of punishment outweighs the rewards.”

Guards who supervise inmate work squads carry mace but no guns.

Of the 172 escapes from state prisons during the budget year that ended June 30, only five were inmates on work details, according to the Department of Corrections.

Scott Fletcher, a Wellington employee who oversees the village’s inmate work crew, said he hasn’t heard any complaints from residents about having prison inmates working at the village’s environmental preserve or its Peaceful Waters Sanctuary.

“Everybody seems to be fine with it,” Fletcher said. “The gentlemen are very polite.”

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