Work-release inmates helping fill holes in tight Alabama labor market

Fast food and other restaurants, construction companies, and manufacturing plants are the top employers using work-release inmates in the county

By Michael Wetzel
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. - The use of trusted inmates to fill local businesses' vacancies amid a tight labor market 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, said fast food and other restaurants, construction companies, and manufacturing plants are the top employers using work-release inmates in the county.

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.

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 on Friday, and rates in Lawrence, Morgan and Limestone were about the same, putting a strain on companies seeking workers.

Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said work-release inmates are often readily available to reenter the workforce. Many local employers use inmates from the state Department of Corrections' North Alabama Community-Based Facility in Decatur.

"With the tight labor market, we have seen more of a reliance on trusties because the businesses' contract for the employee is with the Alabama Department of Corrections instead of the individual," Nails said. "If one trusty doesn't perform the job for whatever reason, the company contacts ADOC, and they place another trusty in the position the next day. They also provide transportation, which is a huge plus with guaranteeing attendance and punctuality."

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.

"We had to stop it because of COVID" two years ago, he said. "We had to protect the integrity of the building having people coming and going. Then late in 2021 and this year, we moved back to putting people in it. It's a benefit to them, a benefit to the employer and benefit to the county. It generates funds all the way around."

Daily enrollment at the Morgan jail is about 660, according to jail records.

"The trusties are usually people we're familiar with," Swafford said. "Sometimes they are somebody we've had an ongoing or long-term relationship with — somebody who has been arrested several times or somebody who has been in here for an extended period of time so we know what they are like and what their behaviors are. All those are factors in the screening process."

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."

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.

No night shifts

Hiring trusties can be tricky, officials agree.

"Trusties are only available for day shifts, and sometimes that isn't typically where the need is with some companies," Nails said.

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.

Meanwhile, Morgan County has about four females in paid work-release jobs.

"(The trusties) are drug screened from time to time. If they fail the drug screen, they come back in and if not, they get to stay out there working," Covington said. "It's up to the inmate. It's up to them to not make bad decisions. ... Some of the people on work release are addicted to drugs. It's hard to control that desire for drugs when they get outside the gate. Sometimes they come in contact with that. They get weak and consume and they get rolled out of the program."

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."

Work-release a privilege

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

"If we learn that girlfriends or family members are coming to meet them, they will be in trouble. Those are no-nos in the program. There are multiple ways to exit the program. It all has to do with getting something or interacting with somebody you are not supposed to interact with."

He said the county has inmates losing work-release privileges about once a month.

"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.

"We've recently had two inmates in the work-release program who have repaid all of their financial debts to courts, to restitution so when they get out they won't have any of that on them," he said.

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 $52,369.12 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.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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