By MICHAEL WETZEL, The Decatur Daily
DECATUR, Ala. (AP) – Using trusted inmates to fill local business vacancies in a tight labor market has helped employers, provided money for paying fines or restitution, and benefited prison budgets of the county, but inmates must follow strict rules. rules for remaining eligible for work release programs.
Kim Thurston, director of community corrections and justice for Morgan County, said fast food and other restaurants, construction companies and manufacturing plants are the top employers using inmates on labor release in the county. .
Frank Singleton, spokesman for Wayne Farms, which employs about 1,900 workers at its three Decatur facilities, said his company currently has about 10 prison administrators on the local payroll, less than 1% of jobs. He said starting jobs for unskilled labor start at $15 an hour with insurance.
“It helps us while we work to resolve our staffing issues, and it helps those workers to be productive and ready when they reenter the company. It can change their situation in a positive way,” he said.
Martavious Birt, 22, of Huntsville, a Morgan County Jail stalwart, considers himself lucky to work at a local restaurant not far from the county jail. He also does landscaping on county-owned jail grounds.
“It gives me a chance to make some money, and it looks good when I go to court. Hopefully I can get out quicker,” he said. Jail records show that Birt is locked up for domestic violence.
“In the restaurant, I have very good managers and I appreciate the little freedom I have. I save some of the money I get paid to have it when I go out. He said that he walked occasionally to and from work.
The state’s unemployment rate fell to an all-time low of 2.6% in June, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the Alabama Department of Labor, and rates in Lawrence, Morgan and Limestone were down. almost the same, putting a strain on companies looking for workers.
Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said inmates on labor release are often readily available to re-enter the workforce. Many local employers use inmates from the State Department of Corrections North Alabama Community Facility in Decatur.
Nails said the workers are generally paid the same as standard employees. “So it’s not alleviating costs, but it’s helping to provide organizations to ensure the continuity of their assembly lines or similar areas which are critical positions for operations,” he said.
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said some jail inmates are not being paid while they perform landscaping and cleaning duties for various municipalities in the county.
“Cities and towns usually provide them with lunch and that gives these inmates an opportunity to get out of jail and be more productive,” he said.
The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office said it recently had 17 trustees working for nonprofits and municipalities.
Trusties are typically nonviolent offenders who often await trial or serve a short sentence, according to local sheriff officials.
Mike Swafford, spokesman for the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, said prison staff learn from inmate behavior and are able to identify those who could play trusted roles. Currently, there are 53 in the program, he said. He said the number fluctuated.
“We had to stop it because of COVID” two years ago, he said. “We had to protect the integrity of the building by getting people to come and go. Then at the end of 2021 and this year, we went back to putting people there. It’s a benefit for them, a benefit for the employer and a benefit for the county. This generates funds all around.
In Lawrence County, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Covington said he selects inmates on work release who are unlikely to attempt to flee.
“We use those who don’t have a history of violent crime and don’t pose a flight risk,” he said.
“Someone who wants to work,” added Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders.
Lawrence County Solid Waste Manager Angela Baldwin said her department employs about six trustees on a regular basis.
“Two work in the workshop and help us maintain and wash the trucks,” she said. “We usually have three or four road work crews doing roadside cleanup work. Our detained workers are a tremendous asset.
She said they are paid the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and that her department hired some after they were released from prison. The sheriff’s office said other trustees earned between $7.50 an hour farming and up to $15 an hour working for a subcontractor on a national highway project. Records indicate that approximately 30 inmates per month in Lawrence County are on release from employment. Not at the same time, however, Covington said.
Hiring trustees can be tricky, officials agree.
Swafford and Sanders said prison administrators don’t work overnight.
“They are expected to be back at a designated time unless the employer requests an extension,” Sanders said. “Most are 8 to 5 jobs. Some restaurants work them from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sometimes an inmate worked in a company before being incarcerated.
“An employer sometimes calls us to tell us that the inmate worked with him before he was incarcerated and that he was a good employee. The employer wants them to work. We try to work with them,” Sanders said. “We want the inmate to keep his job.”
Swafford and Covington said an employer could lose a detained worker when the employee makes a “bad decision” while not in jail.
“When they come back, they’re strip searched and tested for drugs,” Swafford said.
They said trustees would occasionally have illegal contact with people they were banned from or test positive for drugs after working on a construction site.
Covington said about 15% of Lawrence’s trusties “are returned to jail and stripped of trustee status.” He said the number of trustees ranged from 15 to 35 and currently only one inmate is in the work release group.
Sanders said that if an inmate serving time for driving under the influence is caught driving while on release, “we bring him back, even if the employer makes him drive. The inmate knows what is expected of him.
Sanders said a devotee at a construction site would sometimes pick up the phone and do something like harass his former girlfriend.
“We will investigate,” Sanders said. “We need to make sure the ex-girlfriend has a valid complaint.”
Swafford said dating with girlfriends or family members was not permitted.
“One worked in a restaurant and was slow to return to prison. He would linger in the restaurant. We found out a girlfriend was visiting,” he said. “That ended that.”
Swafford said the income is a plus for inmates and the system. Of the money administrators earn, they can keep about 65%, corrections officials said.
Thurston said Morgan Community Corrections collected a total of $52,369 in legal fees and restitution this year.
Sanders said 25% of earnings from the work outing go to the sheriff’s office for supplies and repairs and an additional 10% is used to pay court fines and restitution the inmate may owe. Covington said a portion of the 25% goes to running the work release program.
“When we pay for the testing fees and all that goes with it, there really isn’t a lot of money left. It’s not like we’re seeing real money on the program,” he said.
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