By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications
It’s not unusual to see Whitfield County prisoners in their orange and white uniforms picking up trash along the side of the road, especially with warmer weather on the way.
But what local residents may not be aware of is the fact that the 40 or so members of the Whitfield County jail work crew do a lot more than just clean the roads under the supervision of Sgt. Tracy Davis and Officers Patrick Beach and Jamie Haynes.
For example, members of the work crew have been busy the past few days at the Whitfield County 911 Center, where they have been laying carpet tiles throughout the building.
Lt. Emmit Tate, who oversees the work crew program, calls it “a win-win situation” for the county taxpayers and the inmates.
“The work crews have definitely saved the county a lot of money over the years,” Tate said. “We’ve got the manpower, and the price is right! It helps the budgets of a lot of county departments because they don’t have to pay to have the work done.”
In fact, a just-released report on last year’s activities by the work crew shows that inmates worked a total of 10,536 hours in 2013 — for free. Even if they had been paid minimum wage, their efforts would have added up to more than $75,000 the county would otherwise have had to pay.
While the inmates don’t receive any monetary reward, they do get the reward of staying in a special dormitory for the work crews. Furthermore, their efforts during the day help them complete their sentences faster, or at least it seems that way.
“The way a lot of them look at it is they can sit here and twiddle their thumbs all day,” Tate says, “and you know how long it takes for a minute to go by when you’re just sitting there twiddling your thumbs — man, it makes for a long, long day.
“But if you can get out and you can work and you can do something, before you know it, it’s time to go back to bed so it makes their days go by faster, and that’s why they put in for it because it makes their time — even though it’s still the same amount of time — it just makes it seem like it’s passing faster than it really is.”
Not easy to qualify
Not every inmate qualifies to serve on the work crew, not by a long shot. A careful screening process aims to make sure local residents aren’t endangered by the prisoners on the crew.
“If they’ve done a violent crime, we don’t even look at them,” Tate points out, “or if they’ve committed a crime against children, child molestation, sexual assault, cruelty to children — not even a consideration. We won’t use any of them like that. We run a criminal history, and if it’s in their history that they’ve done something like that, we don’t even consider them. Sometimes it does get downright hard to try to find somebody that has not done something like that in their past; they may not have done it for 20 years, but you know, if they did it … So yeah, sometimes it gets a little hard to fill up the work crew, but we manage.”
Still, the annual report proves that enough inmates do qualify for the program to finish a lot of work over a year’s time.
“We’ve got three officers assigned to the work crews now,” Tate explains. “One generally has to stay here at the jail because we’ve got inmates working in the kitchen, inmates working in the laundry, inmates doing the mopping and the sweeping ...”
The other two officers generally are supervising crews that are usually working on projects away from the jail.
“If they don’t have any projects to work on,” Tate says, “then they’re out picking up trash on the side of the road. Sometimes both those crews are out picking up trash on the side of the road, but that hasn’t happened for a while because we’ve had so many different special projects going on that it’s taken both of them to keep it going.”
The crews have been especially helpful on big projects that the paid maintenance workers don’t always have time to get done because they’re too busy doing small jobs that need to be tackled immediately.
“Last year, we had some big jobs that had been lingering and needed to be fixed, but our regular maintenance guys were so busy doing all the little things that had to be done now, they couldn’t get to the big ones,” Tate says. “So we put our work crews to working with our maintenance people, and we ended up knocking out a bunch of the big projects over the winter.”
Skill set constantly changing
Since the population at the jail is constantly changing for various reasons, the skills of the work crews are constantly changing, too.
“From time to time, we have inmates that come through with different skills,” Tate says, recalling the time a mason was able to help with a project that divided a large room at the jail in half — with a new wall made out of concrete blocks.
“The only thing it cost us was the mortar and the blocks,” Tate says. “We had the free labor” thanks to the special talents of the mason.
Sometimes they have the luxury of having professional painters on the work crew. “When we’ve got painters in here, that’s when we start doing a lot of painting around here,” he says.
Tate says that it’s usually after an inmate has been named to the work crew that officials find out their exact talents.
“I know one time we were trying to pressure wash the sidewalks and the outside blocks of the building,” he says, “and one of the inmates told us he ran a pressure washing business on the outside. Really? Yeah, man, that’s what I do on the outside. Well, come on and let’s see how well you do it! He was knocking it out twice as fast as we were doing it before because he knew how to operate the equipment and maximize the use of it. So it worked out well.”
The work crews normally work Monday through Friday, but sometimes they work on the weekends to tackle jobs that would interfere with normal operations.
“Patrick and Jamie have been working some Saturdays and Sundays painting at the courthouse,” Tate explains. “We’ve got holding cells there, and they’re being used all week long to hold inmates waiting to go into the courtroom. Since they have court basically Monday through Friday, we can’t very well paint Monday through Friday because the cells are being used. So they’ve been painting them on Saturdays and Sundays.”