The Inmate Work Crew Program at the Botetourt County jail is a win-win for the inmates and the community, said Sheriff Matt Ward.
For several hours a day, the inmates can leave their confining cells to work outdoors, while the community saves tax dollars by saving on labor. While inmates currently only work around the Public Safety Building on North Roanoke Street, Ward envisions the inmates performing a myriad of tasks from public landscaping, maintenance tasks, mowing to picking up litter within the community once the program can be fully launched.
Praise from the public was plentiful on the office’s Facebook page. The scores of comments praised the cost savings and rehabilitation of inmates.
“Kudos to Deputy Mason and to BCSO for implementing a program benefiting taxpayers and helping inmates accomplish rewarding work,” wrote one Facebook reader.
“I think this is great, it shows them that they can still get back to society and get respect for their work,” wrote another.
The inmates are supervised by a Botetourt County deputy sheriff while outside the jail.
Ward stressed the program is safe to the public. “The risk to our community is minimal,” he said, adding the work crew consists of highly screened and selected inmates who meet a strict criterion. Sentenced inmates guilty of misdemeanors are permitted to participate, those incarcerated for violent of sexual offenses or have escape charges are ineligible. Additionally, candidates are medically screened at the jail.
Currently, there are about a handful of inmates participating in the program. Ward explains when COVID 19 restrictions are lifted by the state Department of Correction more inmates will participate, including female prisoners.
Presently, he said, the jail is experiencing space shortages due to COVID-19 regulations per the Virginia Department of Correction. The COVID-19 virus has placed stress on the 13-year-old prison for space. Last Thursday morning the jail housed 142 prisoners.
Ward also said program participants are housed in separately from the general population inmates to void smuggling contraband into the facility. “Right now, only men are eligible, because of room.” he said. “When we have enough pod space, female inmates will be eligible to participate.”
Since the program is in its infancy, financial savings have not been calculated yet. Ward is working with sponsors to offset the program’s cost when fully operational. New River Electric Cooperative will sponsor the trailer used to haul the mowing and other equipment needed by the inmates. C & M Industrial Maintenance Service will provide portable toilets. VDOT has expressed interest in having inmates help with beautification projects around the county, including the Troutville Roundabout and trash collection along highways. In return, VDOT covers half a supervising deputy’s salary while out with the crew.
As for participants’ reaction, Ward said they are responding well. While speaking with participants, he said they told him it’s good to “get out and feel normal. They recognize they are responsible for repaying their wrongs.”
According to a 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice, inmates who have the opportunity to engage in work programs while incarcerated have an easier time obtaining work once released. Examining the job stability and societal impact, the study found that more than 75 percent of work program participants were arrest free. After three years, the number dropped to around 55 percent.
The study also found work program participants were hired quicker and held jobs longer than non-work program inmates.
Benefits to inmate work programs, the report states, including, the ability to practice not just hard job skills, but much valued soft traits, such as, respecting authority figures, comprehension of directions, value of teamwork and taking pride in their accomplishments.
Upon release, the work program inmates are also more prepared to handle responsibility and have practical and functional life skills-training, according to the study.
Ward, whose campaign platform included starting an inmate work crew, said the program is going well, despite being small and just beginning.