CHESTER, S.C. — The grass in Chester County might go uncut, county ambulances and police cars would no longer be repaired for the mere cost of parts and the courthouse wouldn’t stay as clean without the labor of 28 prisoners the county borrows from the state.
A South Carolina program that lets counties and local governments use inmate labor in exchange for food, board and medical care rarely gets attention unless it is abused. In the past six months, two sheriffs have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for using prisoners to do work at their homes.
But for small places like Chester County, it provides a hard-to-replace labor pool.
Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey figures he would have to hire about 20 full-time employees to do the jobs currently done by the 28 prisoners. At $30,000 a year, plus about $15,000 in benefits and other costs, that would blow a nearly $1 million hole in the $14 million budget for his county of about 33,000 people.
“I couldn’t afford to run this place without them,” Roddey said.
Chester County is just one of 32 local governments across South Carolina that use inmate labor.
Most tend to be rural, smaller counties. The governments sign a detailed contract with the state for the prisoners and agree to yearly training for any employees who will supervise inmates, said Blake Taylor, who oversees what the state Corrections Department calls the Designated Facilities Program.
If counties abuse the system they can be kicked out. Cherokee County no longer uses state inmates: An investigation four years ago found widespread abuses in that program, including allowing an inmate to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s for his daughter’s birthday party and run an eBay business from his cell that left him $20,000 in the bank.
Lawmakers created the program in the 1970s to clean up a mess left behind in the old chain gang days, when local officials could easily play favorites or abuse inmates, according to Taylor.
Currently, about 350 inmates who would be in minimum security facilities anyway, are loaned out to local governments, according to the Corrections Department.
“When it is done properly, it is a win-win for everybody. The local government gets the benefit of the extra service and the prisoner is able to do something useful and constructive and pass the time he has to serve in a way that is beneficial,” Taylor said.
In Chester County, inmates in blue pants and gray sweatshirts with “Inmate” across the back are a frequent sight. They cook and clean in the local jail, fix roofs, put up fences and mow the grass at dozens of county properties. They do repairs and maintenance on more than 100 county ambulances, police cars and other vehicles and clean every county building.
An inmate even built a raised platform and solid oak railings for the county council chambers. The county’s only expense was $2,700 for supplies for work Roddey figures would have cost at least $40,000 otherwise, all done by a contractor serving time on drug charges.
“I couldn’t afford to hire people off the street for this,” Roddey said. “All I have to do for these people is give them three hots and a cot.”
Inmates also have more flexible schedules. Union County has 15 state inmates, including one who is invaluable for his mechanical and electrical skill. County Supervisor Tommy Sinclair keeps him at the county’s baseball facility in the spring and summer, where he solves problems that creep up with the lights.
“That facility brings in a lot of revenue, and they play games all the time – sometimes up until 11 p.m.,” Sinclair said.
Chester County Maintenance Director Robert Hall said he feels good helping someone down on his luck. But he also watches out for any prisoners trying to take advantage of him. Supervisors can buy inmates lunch or a snack, but they have to buy for the entire crew. Cigarettes and alcohol are forbidden.
Supervisors who use inmates are well aware of what can happen if they ask a prisoner to do personal work.
A former Saluda County sheriff got busted for having an inmate build a party shed and ornate gate on his land, and an Abbeville County sheriff quit because an inmate fixed his car and mowed his lawn.
But Roddey said a lot of good comes out of the program.
Chester County had an inmate who went to prison in his teens. He did odd jobs for years before latching on to air conditioning and heating work. Released in his early 30s, he has remained out of trouble for years, working for a heating and air company.
It is a story that has been told to Brian, who recently was up to his elbows in grease under the hood of an ambulance. The 34-year-old inmate serving time for assault and battery is an ace mechanic in the Chester County motor pool. Corrections Department policy won’t let him be identified with his full name.
“I am very happy to be here and to be working,” he said. “It beats sitting in a cell all day with nothing to do.”