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Saturday, July 13, 2013
Gone are the days of prison inmates completing arduous tasks such as digging ditches or building roads as a form of punishment. Today, inmates are completing work that not only helps society, but helps them reintegrate into society.
People driving through town are likely to see a group of men in khaki-colored uniforms with a stripe on the pants raking leaves, mowing lawns, picking up litter or cleaning a city or county office. They’re inmates at the S.C. Department of Corrections Lower Savannah Pre-Release Center.
“There’s a philosophy in the Department of Corrections that inmates ... should not serve time in anymore restrictive environments than they need to be,” Warden John McCall said. “So if you’ve got somebody who’s forged a check, why have them take up a Level III lockup bed?”
McCall said the hope with many inmates is that they will one day be able to enter a Level I facility that has a labor crew and work program component, such as the Lower Savannah Pre-Release Center.
Labor crews wear the khaki uniforms and do work such as raking, mowing and landscaping and are not paid. After they’ve been in the pre-release center for half the time they were assigned, they can move up to the work program, McCall said.
“Which means, instead of working on one of the crews downtown cutting grass for the city, this guy can go to one of our employers out in the community and actually make a salary,” he said. “We ask that the employer pay the inmate the same salary he would pay someone else working on that job.”
Most inmates are in the facility for a year and a half, but some are there for as little as six months, he said. Currently, there are about 120 inmates in the labor crew program, and 50 in the work program.
The Department of Corrections partners with several contractors, including the City of Aiken, Aiken County, the City of North Augusta and the Aiken Housing Authority.
“Those contractors pay a nominal fee to take those inmates out and use them,” McCall said.
The inmates in both programs work normal workdays and weeks under a supervisor, McCall said. Those who earn money for their work are able to take care of financial obligations, from child support and taxes, to laundry and transportation to and from work. A portion of each inmate’s paycheck is also put into a savings account.
“When they leave out of here to be released or go out on parole or probation, they’ve got money they can take with them,” McCall said. “We try to work and get those guys a paid job so when they get out, if they want to keep that job, they can.”
Another portion of each inmate’s paycheck is designated toward victim-witness assistance.
“Those people you see in the Solicitor’s Office that have to have a victim-witness liaison are, at least, partially supported by what these inmates make on the work program,” McCall said.
A few factors are examined when considering an inmate for the labor crew or work program, including whether they are from in-state or out of state, if they’ve been in the Department of Corrections before and if they have any additional charges that have to be “taken care of,” McCall said.
Rarely do officials have problems with inmates misbehaving or not showing up for work, McCall said.
“We’re reliable. Our inmates go to work every day,” he said. “They better have a good reason why they’re not showing up for work, and we monitor them if they’re not showing up. That’s something that you don’t get out of the civilian end of things.”
Officials talk with inmates about the kind of images they should present before going into the field.
“One of the things I tell them is, you’re going to be out there,” McCall said. “There are things you do, things you don’t do, things that can be misconstrued.”
Bobby Arthurs, chief enforcement officer for the Aiken County Animal Shelter, has been with the shelter since 2001 and said the shelter partnered with inmate labor crews years before that.
“The labor crew we’re partnered up with works really great for us,” he said. “We take in around 5,000 animals a year. These guys’ primary job is cleaning cages and helping us with picking animals up and moving them from kennel to kennel. They’re a very important job for us here at the shelter.”
The shelter started out with one inmate working there, but now has two, in addition to eight employees, a contracted veterinarian and a custodian.
“We have all this help, and we’re still overwhelmed,” Arthurs said. “So we really need our inmate labor to continue.”
While agencies like the animal shelter benefit from the inmate labor, McCall said he hopes the inmates and society benefit the most.
“The public has some options: they can either set up a system that makes the inmate bitter and nonconforming, or you can set up a system that allows inmates privileges and works them through the system,” he said. “You don’t want these people coming out of prison and going back in and just committing more offenses. Probably more so today, I see more positive things happening in the criminal justice system about how we take care of the problem of people committing crimes.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.