A few weeks ago we got an email from Laura, who noticed that inmates from the Albany County Jail were putting up the holiday light display in Washington Park. "I suppose there are many points of view on prisoners working," she wrote, "but it looks like chain gang labor to me."
We've noticed prisoners working on other projects throughout the county, too. And Laura's note got us curious about what kind of jobs they're doing and how the program works.
It turns out the county's inmate work program was instituted by Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple shortly after he took office last year.
Apple began his career in law enforcement as a corrections officer in the 1980s. Back then, one of the things he says bothered him was that inmates were sitting around the jail. "One of my biggest pet peeves was inmates were never really held accountable."
When he became Albany County Sheriff more than 20 years later, he decided to change that. "By law, if you are sentenced, I can make you work. But I haven't had to do that yet," says Apple. Inmates who are sentenced to time in the Albany County Jail are offered the opportunity to work in the program, and most, he says, volunteer.
As of early November, Apple says Albany County inmates have logged nearly 15,000 man hours of labor throughout the county, saving thousands of dollars. Putting up the lights in the park alone, he says, saved the Police Athletic League between $12,000 and $15,000. "It was a good project," Apple says. "Those inmates loved doing that project."
In the last year, projects on which Albany County inmates have worked include:
+ Clean, paint, pull weeds, and plant bulbs in Tawasentha Park in Guilderland
+ Fix headstones and clean up the Rensselaerville Cemetery and other cemeteries
+ Paint every fire hydrant in Watervliet and about 1,000 hydrants in the city of Albany
+ Clean up roads around the county
+ Helped Charlie Muller clean up buildings for Victory Christian Church, as well as work for other not-for-profits.
In addition to the work program, Apple says inmates are offered programs to further their education -- and he says he'd rather see them choose that option.
Still, he says almost all of the inmates in the county jail are enrolled in some type of work program -- even if they don't qualify for the off-premises jobs. "We don't have murderers on the crews. It's for low-level offenders and there's a rigorous screening process."
Groups of four or five inmates are sent out with one armed officer. They're not shackled, but they wear orange and white striped jumpsuits so they're easy to identify. "They won't run," says Apple. "They know they'll get more time from running and you can't run far enough."
He says there are also about 40 or 50 people working inside the jail as well. They can earn certificates in food prep that could help them get jobs when they're released.
Schenectady County has a similar program, though corrections sergeant Arthur Everetts, who oversees that program, says it's much smaller -- mostly because the inmate population is much smaller in the Schenectady County Jail.
"At any time I can have between 3 and 15 people who are eligible," says Everetts. "Finding inmates who fit the criteria is not easy. They have to pass physical and mental health screenings and be non-violent offenders."
Schenectady County's program started in the late 90s, was used minimally and then discontinued. Dominic Dagostino -- who became sheriff in 2010 -- brought it back. Schenectady inmates have worked at Vale Cemetery, at the Pop Warner and Carman Little League fields in Rotterdam, and the Washington Irving School and St. Anthony's Church in Schenectady. Everetts says the best known instance was probably this past summer when a work detail was sent out to help the circus at Proctors. "We got an enormous amount of rain and the circus wasn't sure what to do," says Everetts. "Eight inmates took pickaxes and trenched around the big top so it wouldn't flood."
Inmates with pickaxes?
Everetts says there was never any danger. He says inmates in Schenectady also wear easily identifiable orange clothing and there is one guard for every two inmates on their work detail. Plus, he says, it's kind of a privilege to be out of the jail for the day, enjoying fresh air and doing something productive. "There was a lot of pride and good feeling among those inmates because they were allowing the circus to be held. They were happy to give back."
Nobody gets paid for the work. The inmates provide the labor and the expense to the county is just the guard who goes with them. Sheriff Apple and sergeant Everetts both say as long as they don't have to pay guards overtime, they're planning to continue and even grow the inmate work detail.
"When inmates are doing something constructive they're not sitting in their cells," says Apple. "Our goal is to release inmates as productive citizens. A few people that have been on the program have been hired. ... They're working their butts off and maybe they won't go back to narcotics or get another DWI. We're not going to save the world. We are trying to keep people out of jail and off programs. I don't mind having a lot of vacant cells."
Can you volunteer if you're in prison?
So the work gets done, the inmates get a change of environment, a sense of purpose, maybe some job skills. Is there a downside? Apple and Everetts say they haven't really heard much concern from the public about the program. "I sat down with some mental health advocates and informed the ACLU -- they didn't have a problem with it," Apple says.
"We certainly would have no objection to an inmate being allowed to do what they like to do and get out of jail," says Melanie Trimble, Capital District chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It's certainly advantageous to get them out, all we ask is that there are regulations to protect the [prison] population."
Trimble says there's some concern about how many hours inmates work and the type of work they're doing in county facilities. "State prisons do regulate how many hours prison inmates work, but there's no such regulation on the county jail," Trimble says.
The NYCLU was recently contacted by an Albany County inmate who said he was working too many hours but was afraid to complain because he didn't want to jeopardize his impending release date. "He was in the kitchen and when he mentioned it was hard work, he said he was ridiculed for it," says Trimble. "You can say it's voluntary but there are many unintended consequences when you stand up for yourself in any jail setting. There can be retaliation. We all know that it should not happen and sheriffs and corrections officers would be appalled, but in reality it does happen, and the inmates know that, so they need an outside entity in place to set limits to protect them."
When the NYCLU expressed its concerns to Apple, Melanie Trimble says the sheriff reassured them that he doesn't require inmates to work and that he is benevolent in the way he handles work detail. Trimble says the NYS Commission on Corrections rules for inmate work in county jails are very broad and that the only real restriction seemed to be about working on Sundays.
Says Trimble: "It's really nice that Sheriff Apple is a benevolent overseer, but imagine there is a sheriff with not so benevolent tendencies. To prevent problems there ought to be limits in place. We'd like to see counties abide by the same rules as state prisons."
photo: Albany County Sheriff's Office
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.