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January 26, 2009

Towns Are Sad to See Their Prisons Leaving the Scene of the Grime

CHARLESTON, Maine  – One morning recently at the town hall here, Selectwoman Terri-Lynn Hall set out some fresh coffee, crackers and dip for the cleaning crew. “I also make ’em turkeys, bake ’em hams, and serve spaghetti,” she said — “with homemade sauce.”

One of the crew, Rex Call, put down his mop and helped himself to a piping hot mug of joe. “I’d rather be working here than sitting in the cell all day,” said Mr. Call, who — when he’s not out on work-release — is serving two years in state prison for car theft.

Although many people fight fiercely to block prisons from coming to town, Charleston and other communities are feeling an opposite impulse these days. They are fighting to keep their prisons from going away.

Many states, including Maine, Ohio, Washington and New York, want to close or consolidate prisons to save money. Here in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci wants to mothball part of Charleston Correctional Facility and relocate nearly 40% of the inmates, which would cut work-release crews.

But this farming town of 1,500 wants its criminal element to stick around. Town leaders say they don’t know what they will do without the free or ultra-cheap labor the jailbirds provide. “Oh my goodness, gracious, they are such an asset — they are our public-works department,” said Ms. Hall.

Last year, Charleston’s prisoners did 39,337 hours of community work, prison officials say, roughly the equivalent of 19 full-timers. Inmates maintain the five local cemeteries, set up election booths and hang Veteran’s Day flags. They built the log-cabin “snack shack” at a local park, and helped bust up beaver dams in a stream that runs along Bacon Road.

When a minimum-security prison was built in downtown Wooster, Ohio, a decade ago, “we took a lot of heat” from people who didn’t want it, says Capt. Charlie Hardman of the sheriff’s department there. But now that budget cuts could close the facility, he says, “People are concerned. Who is going to pick up the litter?”

Originally, Sandra Hull was antiprison. She heads Main Street Wooster, a downtown-revitalization group — and a building full of criminals wasn’t her idea of an improvement. “I didn’t really want them there,” she says.

‘Wonderful Neighbors’

Today, she wants them to stay. They turned out to be “wonderful neighbors,” Ms. Hull says. Among other things, prisoners shovel snow in front of local shops.

Closure is also being fought by city officials and the local Habitat for Humanity. Habitat’s truck driver, Jesse Smith, has a bad back, so he uses convicts to help him lug around fridges and other heavy items. Sometimes, he says, the inmates gripe about prison life. “I tell these boys, ‘Don’t get an attitude, you’re the one who done it,’ ” Mr. Smith says.

County Commissioner Jim Carmichael says closure is being considered because the prison isn’t profitable, and it’s not fair for cities and towns to get “free labor at a cost to the county.”

In the small city of Medical Lake in eastern Washington, Mayor John Higgins pleaded with his state representative to help keep the nearby Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women from shuttering. The state is thinking about closing the 350-inmate prison by 2010.

“We use the inmates to run our recycling center — four women five days a week, seven hours a day,” saving the city at least $150,000 a year in labor costs, says Doug Ross, the city administrator. “I don’t exactly know how we’re going to run it without the crew.” Female felons from Pine Lodge also split and stack wood for senior citizens.

Emily Echols, who is 35 and serving time for burglary, shovels snow at a center for disabled adults and doesn’t want to leave Medical Lake. “I’m not too happy,” she says. “I feel like I’m part of this little community,” referring to the town. In addition, moving means “more upheaval and trying to start over again in another prison.”

Inmates typically get little or no pay for their work, but they can earn reduced sentences. Depending on their job, they can also learn a trade, such as construction work or forklift-driving, “rather than just sitting and rotting in a jail,” said Jim Zecca, director of solid waste for Madison County, N.Y. His county is home to a minimum-security state prison that Gov. David Paterson is looking at shuttering to help close a $15.4 billion budget gap.

Mr. Zecca said inmates generate $200,000 in annual revenue for the county by rummaging through its landfill for copper and other valuable scrap. “I just hate to see it go,” said Mr. Zecca of the prison.

There’s a long history of putting prisoners to work. Inmates make license places in Colorado, mattresses in Louisiana and orange safety vests for highway crews in North Carolina. Typically, only prisoners from minimum-security facilities qualify for jobs outside prison walls.

In most instances, work-release inmates are nonviolent offenders who are already near the end of their sentences, giving them very little incentive to stray from the rules. Typically, work crews are supervised by at least one prison official.

Occasionally there is trouble. After all, “You are dealing with an inmate population,” Mr. Zecca says. Once, inmates clearing brush at a local park wandered away, but were eventually found because they got lost in the woods.

At Charleston’s prison, escape attempts in general are rare, officials say, partly because of the nearby wilderness. “If you escape, it’s almost like walking into ‘Deliverance’ out there,” says prison supervisor George Peterson, referring to the movie in which four friends get stalked in the woods by a toothless mountain man.

Once, Mr. Peterson says, an inmate fled and hid in a swamp, but was munched on by so many insects that when the guards found him, he was “screaming to go back to prison.” Mr. Peterson also says work-release inmates sometimes manage to persuade people in town to toss beers over the prison fence.

Some inmates use work-release to try to right previous wrongs. Andrew Sargent, 25 years old, landed in the clink in 2006 after breaking into a convenience store in Dexter, near Charleston. When Dexter’s tiny police department needed its station repainted, Chief Art Roy called for a prison work crew — but specified that he didn’t want to see Mr. Sargent on it, because he had caused trouble in town.

Determined to show he’d changed, Mr. Sargent wrote the chief a letter apologizing for his convenience-store break-in, which involved the theft of cigarettes.

“He had a new attitude,” says Chief Roy.

Mr. Sargent ended up being such a good worker that the chief says he now plans to give him a job reference when Mr. Sargent goes free this month.

Original article by Jennifer Levitz of the WSJ


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