Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Paws for Scofflaws

by Donna Pendergast

Some of you might remember Sheriff Joe from a prior post. Sheriff Joe, the top dog at the Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff's Department, is the top dog on another front as well.

In a win-win move for the county, its animals and its inmates, Sheriff Joe opened the Maricopa County Animal Safe Hospice (MASH), created to care for abused and neglected animals. It also cares for pets belonging to women in county domestic-violence shelters.

Female inmates care for smaller animals in an air-conditioned jail closed because of plumbing problems. The facility has been reconditioned to comfortably house the animals. Male inmates care for larger animals at a fenced-in area near Tent City, a housing facility for hundreds of inmates.

Inmates clamor to work in the no-kill facilities. The pay of 28 cents an hour is less important than the opportunity to get out of their cells and work with the animals. The prisoners feed and care for them, walk them twice a day, and teach classes to prospective owners on animal behavior and pet nutrition. MASH adopts out animals for reasonable fees in top-notch condition after being vaccinated, neutered and nursed back to health. It requests a minimum donation of $100.00 for dogs and $25.00 for cats. Adoption fees help pay for the maintenance costs of the facility.

People who adopt pets from MASH must promise to care for them with love and affection while satisfying routine needs: adequate meals, water and ongoing medical care. They also must agree to return unwanted animals to a no-kill shelter or to MASH.

The program has saved the county millions of dollars, created a positive way to teach inmates a work ethic, and provided them a chance to give back to the community at no cost to the county. What could be smarter in these days of massive government budget deficits? It comes down to using government dollars wisely and taking advantage of a large and often willing resource, an overflowing inmate population.

The idea of using inmate labor is nothing new. Inmates have always been used inside prison and jail facilities to reduce inmate idleness and provide needed services. County jails have long used inmates on work crews that maintain county roads and collect highway litter. These minimal efforts have barely touched the potential of the jail and prison population, and weren't aimed at making a profit or reducing government expenditures.

Some states are considered models, demonstrating new ways to use the untapped resources that lie within jail and prison walls. In Kansas, low-risk prison inmates have been the main source of labor for state park services and maintenance for more than 40 years. In California, inmate firefighters contribute three million man-hours fighting forest fires; they save the state more than $80 million dollars each year. The inmates work alongside professional firefighters, distinguished only by their prison garb.

Decatur, Georgia, inmates at the regional prison do so much work for the county and other counties that contract for their work that the prison, which covers its $2 million operational costs, is more than self-sufficient. Inmates with special skills provide labor in valuable arenas such as mechanics and roofing. Others do grass cutting, road work and construction. They also can pick up valuable skills, such as running heavy machinery, while working at the Decatur County solid-waste facility.

Clearly, not all inmates are candidates for outside, supervised work. But many opportunities exist to offset recession-exacerbated budget gaps. In Colorado, some 17,000 inmates have jobs in works programs managed by Colorado Correctional Industries, a self-funded division of the Colorado Department of Corrections. These inmates make fishing rods, dorm furniture, file cabinets, clothing and a multitude of other items, generating more than $65 million in revenue last year.

In these days of ballooning deficits and rising prison costs crowding out other spending priorities, a long-term, fiscally responsible approach to criminal justice is a resoundingly good idea.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Anonymous said...

Inmate labor is a very good idea, good for the inmates to be active and feel the are contributing.
However, a number of years ago a suit was brought that the "forced" labor was cruel and unusual punishment. I do not recall which states, but one, had to cease the labor program. I only remember how angry and disgusted I was. At the time I knew a young man, a farm boy, in reformatory. He was asigned to a prison farm and loved it. Being permitted to be in the open air and be useful.
Was this eventually overturned? (I do hope)
Congratulations to Sheriff Joe for doing something possitive.

Donna Pendergast said...

I'm not sure of the result of that suit but even if the labor isn't forced----if the opportunities are made available for those who are interested (and pass stringent screening criteria for outside work) the potential is enormous

Anonymous said...

I Love Joe Arpaio and his tatics. I would love for him to become the President of the United States! I commend him for all that he is doing.