FOLKSTON, Ga. - Donald McDaniel says he's repaying his debt to society - with interest.
A conviction for a parole violation and cocaine possession landed Mr. McDaniel in Ware State Prison in October 1999. He brought skills that prison officials say can benefit communities surrounding the correctional facility in Waycross.
Mr. McDaniel, 37, worked construction jobs before his incarceration. Now, he works with a crew of inmates building a new headquarters for the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Center in Waycross.
"Most of us have done private contract work before," Mr. McDaniel said. "There's a lot of money the state saves by using us."
Inmate labor is an important way for communities to reduce construction costs and has been used on projects worth $150 million statewide since 1995, said Danny Brown, the director of engineering and construction services for the state's Department of Corrections.
Only state government agencies, municipalities and school systems can use voluntary inmate labor.
Inmates have saved municipalities, and their taxpayers, at least $50 million since 1995, Mr. Brown said. In some cases, the use of inmates cut the cost of projects in half.
Inmates also benefit, learning through vocational training programs skills they can take into the workplace after their release, prison officials said.
Southeast Georgia RDC Executive Director Lace Futch estimates inmate labor will save taxpayers at least $500,000 on the Waycross facility, scheduled for completion next month.
As for quality, Mr. Futch said, the 17,000-square-foot building "more than meets our expectations."
Under the program, inmates have renovated courthouses and built fire stations, schools, even jails, Mr. Brown said.
"It has a positive effect for those small municipal counties and cities," Mr. Brown said. "It's a good program."
Inmates are working at 38 construction projects across Georgia, and the program has another 75 projects on a three-year waiting list, Mr. Brown said.
"We can't take too many of these at one time," Mr. Brown said. "It taxes our resources too much."
Most of the estimated 650 inmates on the construction crews performed similar jobs before they were incarcerated, though some on-the-job training is given, Mr. Brown said. But prior experience is only one criteria considered when an inmate is asked to join a work crew.
Mr. Brown said inmates must be considered a low risk for escape, cannot be convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses, and cannot work in communities where they once lived or have relatives. Corrections officers with a background in construction supervise the work crews, and at least one corrections security officer is at every site while inmates are working, Mr. Brown said.
Inmates participating in the program say the work is a welcome diversion from the monotony behind prison walls.
"Out here we're able to keep up with the trade," said Roger Spratlin, 48, who is serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault.
Although convicted of a violent crime, Mr. Spratlin was allowed to join the crew because he is considered a low risk. He's scheduled for release in 2005.
"We feel like what it would cost them, we're saving the state of Georgia," Mr. Spratlin said. "We're paying for our keep."
Reluctant supporter Dixie McGurn was less than thrilled in 1993 when former Folkston Mayor D. Ray James began lobbying for a prison in Charlton County to bring in new jobs, stimulate growth and raise the local tax base.
"I wasn't enthusiastic of the prison coming here," said Ms. McGurn, a former city council member. "I wasn't outright against it, but I had apprehension."
Now she says the prison was a great idea. "It's the best thing we've ever done," said Ms. McGurn, who is beginning her second term as Folkston mayor.
The 1,500-bed prison - built in 1998 - has had a huge impact on the county of about 10,000. Prison officials estimate the facility pumps $26 million into the economy annually.