Several Richmond County school board members said Wednesday that using inmates for maintenance work saves money but added that prisoners should not be used around schoolchildren.
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Some board members said an incident Tuesday at C.T. Walker Magnet School must have been a breakdown in communication.
At about 2 p.m. Tuesday, prisoners were seen cutting grass around the playground fence while children at the school played a few feet away.
Donald Porter, schools spokesman, said last month that inmates are used in areas where no children are present.
Mr. Porter did not respond to questions about the incident, which were faxed to him by 1 p.m. Wednesday Doris Parks, secretary to Superintendent Charles Larke, said Dr. Larke was in the office but had instructed his staff to refer all media calls to Mr. Porter.
Of the 142 people who responded to a poll by @ugusta, The Augusta Chronicle online, 38 said they are outraged that prisoners are allowed to work near students; 26 said they are somewhat concerned; 60 said it's fine if school is out; and 18 said they are not concerned.
Most of the school board members contacted Wednesday about the incident said the prisoners have served the system well since the program began in 1968; they said they were told inmates are not used when children are around.
"I don't like that, and they are not supposed to be doing that. We told you that in the beginning," board member Y.N. Myers said of the prisoners working around the children. "Why this happened, I don't know. But every time I've seen them working, there were no children present."
Mr. Myers said he is not sure how the board can assure parents that such an incident will not happen again.
"Mistakes happen," he said. "I couldn't say there is a guarantee that this will never happen again, I hope it doesn't happen again. Usually they are on athletic fields."
This year, the school board has budgeted $127,742 for salaries and benefits for guards to watch over 12 prisoners, but may not spend the entire amount. Officials said last year the school board spent only $68,000.
Robert Leverett, warden of the Richmond County Correctional Institution, said his department has dispersed six inmates and one guard so far this year to the school system's maintenance department to use where schools need help.
The shift starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Mr. Leverett said the backgrounds of inmates released for work detail are thoroughly checked. Richmond County officials say the inmates have been convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors.
"Our classification committee makes sure those who go out have not had any problems being around children," Mr. Leverett said. The committee consists of the jail's director of counseling, the inmates' individual counselors and a member of the security staff, he said.
"It's not just a matter of coming in and being assigned. They have to meet the criteria in order to be assigned to those details," Mr. Leverett said.
Theowanda Briggs, who lives near C.T. Walker, called The Augusta Chronicle and said she saw the inmates cutting grass at about 1 p.m. Tuesday before the pupils were let outside.
"The teachers are more at fault than the board members for letting the children come outside while they were working," she said. "They had time enough to think before they brought them outside."
Board member Kingsley Riley said she has seen prisoners working around the pupils at other schools and doesn't have a problem with it.
"I have seen them do that many times," Mrs. Riley said. "I didn't think anything about it because I have learned during the years that nothing is guaranteed. People inside their own homes are being shot by their own children. People are being shot in churches. You have to trust a source outside of yourself and just do what you know and think in your heart is right."
Board member Kenneth Echols said the process needs to be changed.
"I think the board needs to come up with some guidelines at next month's meeting to direct Dr. Larke," Mr. Echols said. "We're concerned about safe schools, but when we put students in harm's way by having prisoners next to them, it concerns me."
Board member Eloise Curtis said she is in favor of the school system's using the inmates but not around pupils.
Board member Adna Stein said the program is being monitored and properly supervised.
"I would simply say, it (the incident at C.T. Walker) must have been a communication breakdown because children are not supposed to be in the area where they are working," Mr. Stein said. "In spite of all of the precautions you take, someone from time to time will allow an unsupervised incident to take place, and that's what we don't particularly want, so we'll keep a watch on it."
School board members Cherie Foster and John Seitz said they didn't have any information on the situation.
Board member Andrew Jefferson declined comment, and board President Mary Oglesby and member Barbara Padgett could not be reached for comment.
Although Richmond County uses inmates for maintenance work, Columbia and Aiken counties do not.
Reach Faith Johnson at (706) 823-3765.