Prison labor works when budget's tight

ATHENS -- Hire one employee, get three free.


The Athens-Clarke Commission has considered stopping mowing grass along state highways to save $70,000 in the worst economic year in memory.

But when it comes to landscaping and many other government tasks, the county gets more bang for its buck by using state prisoners for labor.

Rather than hire people to cut grass or perform other menial tasks, the Athens-Clarke government turns those jobs over to prisoners. In the case of the state-owned rights of way, the county is getting four workers for the price of one: A county employee leads a crew of three prisoners.

"You might consider it entry-level work," Landscape Management Administrator Roger Cauthen said. "We don't really have any entry-level employees."

About 70 to 80 of the 112 prisoners housed in a medium-security state prison at the Clarke County Jail are assigned daily to work outside the walls, said Athens-Clarke Correctional Institute Warden W.C. Bolton. They do everything from picking up trash to mowing grass at parks to helping with electrical and plumbing work, depending on their skills, Bolton said.

"We have inmates integrated throughout the government," he said. "They do a lot of different jobs."

Prison labor saves money, but it's not a recent cost-cutting measure, Bolton said. Clarke County has worked prisoners since the 1930s, he said.

The prisoners who work outside the state facility - others cook, clean and do other jobs inside the prison and county jail - are classified as minimum-security, nonviolent criminals or trustees, Bolton said.

They are not paid, but they get the benefit of learning skills that will help them find a job when they are released, he said. The corrections department also offers GED classes and provides job training in partnership with the state Department of Labor, he said.

"Hopefully we can put back a better inmate into the community than we receive," he said.

Inmates at the county jail, most of whom have not been convicted or sentenced, do not work in the outside world, but they do work inside the jail, said Capt. Eric Pozen of the Clarke County Sheriff's Office, which administers the jail.

Landscape Management, the county government division responsible for keeping the grass mowed on government property, employs 35 people and uses about 20 prisoners at any given time, in addition to people who have been sentenced to community service, Cauthen said.

"We actually use all (the free labor) that we can," he said.

The four-person crew that mows state-owned rights-of-way is responsible for highways 78, 15, 441 and 72, otherwise known as Lexington and Commerce roads, North, Prince and Milledge avenues, Atlanta Highway and Broad Street, Cauthen said.

The crew mows alongside urban roads - those with curbs and gutters - every two weeks and rural roads - those with ditches and no curbs - every four weeks, he said.

If commissioners had agreed to Mayor Heidi Davison's recommendation that they cut the grass-cutting out of the budget, the county would have saved $67,000 in salary, equipment, maintenance and supplies like mulch bags. Since the state Department of Transportation only mows its rural highways twice a year and urban highways not at all, they also might have faced the wrath of constituents unhappy with the untidy roadsides.

The commission is scheduled to approve the budget for fiscal 2010, the year that begins July 1, at its June 2 meeting. Commissioners have said they will leave money for mowing in the budget.



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