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Some Alabama Businesses Using Inmates to Fill Job Openings

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By MICHAEL WETZEL, The Decatur Daily

Some businesses, cities and non-profits in North Alabama are turning to trusted jail inmates to fill job openings in this tight labor market.

Supporters say this has helped the employers, provided money for fine or restitution payments, and benefited county jail budgets, but the inmates have to follow strict rules to remain eligible for work-release programs.

Kim Thurston, director of Morgan County Community Corrections and Court Services in Decatur, said fast food and other restaurants, construction companies, and manufacturing plants are the top employers using work-release inmates in the county.

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Frank Singleton, a spokesman for Wayne Farms, which employs about 1,900 workers at its three Decatur facilities, said his company has about 10 jail trusties currently on the local payroll, less than 1% of the jobs. He said starting jobs for unskilled labor start at $15 an hour with insurance.

“It helps us out while we work to meet our staffing issues, and it helps those workers be productive and be ready when they reenter society. It can change their situation in a positive way,” he said.

Morgan County Jail trusty Martavious Birt, 22, of Huntsville, considers himself fortunate to work at a local restaurant not far from the county jail. He also does landscaping on the 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 more quickly,” he said. Jail records show Birt is locked up on a domestic violence charge.

“At the restaurant, I have some pretty good managers, and I enjoy the little freedom I get. I save up part of the money I am paid so I will have it when I get out.” He said he occasionally walks to and from work.

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The state unemployment rate fell to an all-time low of 2.6% in June, according to preliminary numbers released by the Alabama Department of Labor.

Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said work-release inmates are often readily available to reenter the workforce.

Nails said the workers are usually paid the same as standard employees. “So it doesn’t relieve costs but it does help provide bodies to ensure continuity in their assembly lines or similar areas that are crucial positions to operations,” he said.

Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said some jail inmates are not paid while they do landscaping and cleanup duties for various municipalities across the county.

“The cities and towns usually provide them lunch and it gives those inmates an opportunity to get out of the jail and be more productive,” he said.

The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office said it recently had 17 trusties working for nonprofit organizations and municipalities.

Trusties are usually non-violent offenders often awaiting trial or serving out a short sentence, local sheriffs’ officials say.

Mike Swafford, spokesman for the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail staff learns the behavior of the inmates and is able to identify those who could serve in trusty roles. Presently, there are 53 in the program, he said. He said the number fluctuates.

In Lawrence County, sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Covington said they select work-release inmates who are unlikely to try to flee.

“We use those who have no history of violent crime and aren’t a flight risk,” he said.

“Somebody who wants to work,” Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders added.

Angela Baldwin, Lawrence County Solid Waste manager, said her department employs about six trusties on a regular basis.

“Two work in the shop and help us with maintenance and washing the trucks,” she said. “We usually have three or four working on road crews doing roadside cleanup work. Our inmate workers are a tremendous asset.”

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She said they are paid the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and her department has hired some after they are released from jail. The Sheriff’s Office said other trusties make between $7.50 an hour farming to as much as $15 an hour working for a subcontractor on a state highway project. Records indicate about 30 inmates a month in Lawrence County are on work release. Not at the same time, though, Covington said.

Hiring trusties can be tricky, officials agree.

Swafford and Sanders said the jail trusties don’t work overnight positions.

“They’re supposed to be back at a designated time unless the employer calls for additional time,” Sanders said. “Most are 8 to 5 jobs. Some of the restaurants work them 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.”

Sometimes an inmate was employed with a company before being locked up.

“An employer will sometimes call us saying the inmate was working with them before they got placed in jail and they were 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 an inmate worker when the employee makes a “bad decision” while out of jail.

“When they come back in, they are strip-searched and drug tested,” Swafford said.

They said trusties will occasionally have unlawful contact with people that are off-limits to them or test positive for drugs after working at a job site.

Covington said about 15% of the Lawrence trusties “are rolled back into jail and taken off trusty status.” He said the number of trusties ranges from 15 to 35 and currently only one female inmate is in the work-release group.

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Sanders said that if an inmate serving time for driving under the influence is caught driving while on work release, “we bring him back in, even though the employer has him driving. The inmate knows what is expected of him.”

Sanders said a trusty at a job site occasionally will get on the phone and do something like harass his former girlfriend.

“We’ll investigate,” Sanders said. “We’ve got to make sure the ex-girlfriend has a valid complaint.”

Swafford said meeting with girlfriends or family members is not allowed.

“One worked in a restaurant and was slow getting back to the jail. He would linger at the restaurant. We found out that a girlfriend was visiting,” he said. “That ended that.”

Swafford said the income is a plus for inmates and the system. Of the money the trusties earn, they get to keep about 65%, corrections officials said.

Thurston said Community Corrections in Morgan has collected a total of $52,369 in court costs and restitution this year.

Sanders said 25% of work-release income goes to the Sheriff’s Office for supplies and repairs and another 10% goes to pay down the court fines and restitution the inmate may owe. Covington said that some of the 25% goes toward the management of the work-release program.

“When we pay for the screening costs and everything that goes along with it, there really is not much money left over. It’s not like we are seeing any real money off the program,” he said.

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