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Inmate labor may soon cost municipalities

Published January 20. 2011 05:01PM

Municipalities that use Carbon County inmate labor may be asked to contribute $80-$100 to cover the costs to the county correctional facility.

The county Prison Board on Wednesday suspended the correctional facility's four-year-old, $24,473 a year Inmate Work Program for at least 30 days until it figures out how to pay for it without using tax dollars. One option is for the municipalities who use the labor to contribute.

According to earlier stories in the TIMES NEWS, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency last year provided a $4,219 grant toward the cost, leaving $20,254 to paid from county funds. The costs are for a part-time correctional officer to fill in for the full-time officer who supervises the inmates on the work detail.

The program currently involves just a couple of inmates, but about a dozen work during the summer months, said Work Release/Treatment Director Frank Shubeck, who oversees the program. Six offenders are currently eligible for the program.

Inmate labor has been used to pick up litter along highways, clean the Summit Hill borough hall and work on Lansford's swimming pool, for example.

The move to suspend - or cut - the program drew opposition from Shubeck. "How can we afford to not to continue this program?" he asked.

He said the program saves taxpayer dollars through the work the inmates provide. "In the end, I think it is saving the taxpayers some money," he said.

Shubeck said the program offers rehabilitation, job training. It also offers inmates who don't have full-time employment ... it takes them out of that work release unit. and puts them on a program where they can do some good in a community."

If the program ends, "it will result in inmates sitting around, watching cartoons, watching TV all day. For the inmates that are able to work, but don't have employment, this is a real good program for them, and it can save the communities a lot of money," he said.

The program also provides for "good time." For each 24 hours an inmate works in the program, one day is taken off his sentence, Shubeck said.

The program began in the late 1990s as the Alternative Work program. The current version program was created about two or three years ago, modeled after a similar program in Columbia County, Shubeck said.

He said the program was successful because it offered the labor free of charge to nonprofits and communities, and that the inmates were closely supervised by a correctional officer.

The board also discussed how to continue to provide inmate labor to clear ice and snow off the 903 bridge under an agreement between the county and the state Department of Transportation.

Commissioner Charles Getz wondered whether the program could be paid for through the hotel tax. County Administrator Randall Smith said that a neighboring county uses the tax to pay for highway litter pick-up as a component of its tourism efforts.

The board asked Shubeck to write to the municipalities, explaining the situation and asking whether they would be willing to contribute.

County Controller Robert Crampsie brought up the matter at Wednesday's Prison Board meeting. "I can't see it continuing to operate at the expense of the taxpayer," he said. He moved to suspend the program, a motion that was unanimously supported by the board.

County Commissioners Chairman William O'Gurek suggested having the requesting parties requesting the inmate labor to contribute toward the cost of supervision."If we take three or four people out on a job and an eight-hour day, we can get them 30 hours of community service work for their facilities, whether its painting or cutting weeds or whatever, for the cost of supervision ... which may be $100. It's well worth it," he said.

A brief discussion left the board in agreement that it would not be a good idea to have the municipalities supervise the inmates themselves.

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