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Cheap labor

JACKSON – One dollar per day….that’s the going rate for prison laborers and Northampton County local government wants to tap into that rock-bottom price.

At their meeting here earlier this week, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners approved a contract with the NC Department of Correction / Division of Prisons to use inmates currently incarcerated at Odom Correctional Institute, located near Jackson, to perform a variety of minimal tasks.

Northampton Public Works Director Jason Morris pitched the idea of using inmate labor to the Commissioners. He said the contract – which runs from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016 – with the state Department of Correction reserves five laborers for the Public Works Department. Their duties will include, but not limited to, janitorial, grounds/building maintenance, parks/recreational area maintenance, public works projects, roadside cleaning, recycling projects, and other governmental agency projects.

The cost is $1 per inmate per eight-hour day. The maximum amount for the full 12 months is estimated at $1,400.

“That ($1,400) is only if all five laborers are used five days a week, all year long,” Morris said. “We may have a project where we do not need to use all five inmates each day.”

Morris further added that the funds used to pay the prison laborers will be taken from the respective budgets of the various Public Works departments (Building & Grounds, Preventative Maintenance, Water & Sewer, and Solid Waste) from where the inmates are assigned to work.

“We are short-staffed, so by using these laborers it would help to get some larger projects done that require more hours in the day that are currently unavailable,” Morris said.

“This is a program utilized by some towns in our county and from talking to those municipal officials they are pleased with the services they have received from the inmate labor,” Morris added, citing that Jackson, Rich Square, Woodland and Seaboard have used prison laborers.

The contract calls for NorthamptonCounty local government to provide transportation for the inmates to and from the work site. It also states that supervision of the inmates will be provided by the county.

“There will be no correctional officer with the inmates as they perform this work,” Morris noted. “We will have to use one of our staff (county employee) to remain with the inmates and provide supervision as they perform these tasks, but the extra hands we’ll have with these laborers will be of great benefit to the county. We can get more work for less money.”

Morris also stressed another plus to this plan.

“It helps the inmates get re-acclimated to society when they eventually fulfill their prison sentences and are set free,” he observed.

The Commissioners did express some concerns over the use of prison labor, the biggest of which centered on insurance liability and if protocols are in place in the event one of the inmates escapes while performing work for the county.

Morris stated that the inmates were covered by state’s medical insurance plan.

“If one of the laborers is injured while performing work for the county, we would have to report that incident to the officials at Odom, but the medical end of that is covered by the state,” he noted.

“If one escapes while working for us, there are protocols in place for that,” Morris added. “We would notify Odom and they take charge.”

Jackson Police Chief John Young, who was in attendance at the Commissioners’ meeting, said the town had just renewed their annual contract with the state to use Odom inmates. Young also verified that the person providing the supervision over the inmates while they are at a work site is first required to complete a short course on how to handle that duty. That course is offered at Odom.

The contract particularly specifies that no prison labor is allowed to work on the grounds or within any building on a public or private school campus while students are at that facility.

Prior to voting on the issue, Commissioner Robert Carter recommended that Morris submit the logistics of how he plans to operate this program be reviewed and approved by County Manager Kimberly Turner. Those logistics are to include supervision, work schedules, lists of the projects that will use inmate laborers, training, and transportation to and from the prison.

On a motion from Carter and a second by Commissioner Virginia Spruill, the board approved the measure by a 5-0 vote.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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