Inmate labor, good or bad?

The June 7th Pittsburgh Trib had an article regarding an inmate labor policy adopted by Westmoreland County Jail. County Controller Carmine Pedicone first considered a policy for this when he saw inmates in orange jumpsuits planting flowers at Courthouse Square in Greensburg. Pedicone said. “I wondered if there was a policy in place to govern inmate labor and I found there wasn’t one. I just wanted to be pro-active. I have no problem with them doing that kind of work, they do a fine job.”

The policy requires inmate labor projects outside of the jail to be approved in writing by the jail board chairman and to be possibly considered by the entire board which includes Pedicone, the three County Commissioners, acting Sheriff Charles Moore and DA John Peck. The board will also have to approve the use of prison equipment outside of the jail.

The policy was approved unanimously by the board after a 30 minute closed-door meeting at the request of Pedicone.

Prison Warden John Walton said he fields a handful of requests for inmates to perform projects around the county. Most involve work for the government including the recent flower planting at the Courthouse Square and some carpentry work during a recent rehab project at a district judge’s office in Washington Township

Now for the tricky part. It all sounds well and good but the policy also states, in typical governmental vagueness, that labor performed will only be for non-profit and government groups. The projects will have to be approved by the prison board. This is the first time inmate labor will be regulated to strictly non-profits and government groups. With the introduction of the policy inmates will be prohibited from working for private business and for-profit groups.

For how long? The movie, “The Shawshank Redemption” springs to mind when Warden Hazen began using inmate labor. Right from the start the warden was taking kick backs and payoffs. We already know that any government is not as transparent as it should be. Is this inviting corruption and misappropriation or is it truly a chance to employ cheap labor to help County Government curtail rising costs and shrinking budgets.

Inmate labor crew

Why only non-profit and government requests? Last year before the high school football season got started there were inmates who were incarcerated at SCI Pine Grove doing painting at the Homer City football field. These inmates were part of the CWP or Community Work Program. Now I realize that State Corrections is different from County Corrections but I think there is a status quo that could be met by the county. True, they were doing work for a high school but as long as I have been around I don’t know of any sports program that doesn’t raise funds now and again for equipment or even little extras like jackets.

Warden Walton said that the inmates are paid 25 cents an hour for their work but the jail receives no compensation. Walton said in the past he decided what projects merit inmate labor. “It hasn’t been an issue,” Walton said.

In a letter to the editor printed in the Trib on 6-14-11, there are some who do not see the merit in this policy.

LETTER: Inmate labor for all

I see the politicians in Greensburg are at it again. If I understand the news story “Inmate labor policy adopted at Westmoreland prison” (June 7 and TribLIVE.com) correctly, only government and nonprofits will be able to use free inmate labor (paid for, of course, by the taxpayers). This is just another scheme to offset costs so Westmoreland County government can spend the savings on something else (like buying votes).

And where do the politicians get off allowing nonprofits to benefit? Why should they be included in the freebees? Is this some sort of club for government and nonprofits?

I support the idea of using inmate labor, but it should not be free! If it is going to be offered, it should be available to government, nonprofits and private-sector companies at the same break-even cost that would include the necessary security, transportation, meals, materials and overhead. Either all should be included or the idea should be abandoned.

There could also be a formula created that would credit the fees collected against the general operating expenses of the prison, thus in reality lowering the tax dollars needed to operate the prison. But who am I kidding? None of those policymakers live in reality!

Michael J. Kardell

Murrysville

It sounds to me that Mr. Kardell raises some good points in his letter. If I need to rehash them for you then you weren’t paying attention. I see his points here and they don’t need to hit me in the head like a hammer. If the county really wants to offset the operating costs of the county jail then perhaps there could be a way that everyone could benefit from the reduced labor costs of using inmates instead of high-priced, unreliable contractors. Some of you are saying to yourselves, “I don’t want some inmate on my property doing work. If I want a criminal here I’ll hire a contractor.” However, I think there can be benefits to this program but I agree with Mr. Kardell. The inmate labor should be available to all who may need it.

In this age of a tanking economy, gas prices rising uncontrollably and companies being forced to lay off workers, there should be a way for every company to benefit and possibly keep from being bitten by the pending recession. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. But what if I’m not? Should this new policy be re-written to allow all companies to use inmate labor or should it remain the same and raise the unemployment rate and force local Westmoreland County companies to leave the county in search of greener pastures?

Hopefully there can be a happy medium worked out because even though Mr. Kardell’s letter was the only I saw going over it, I’m sure there other county residents that feel the same as he does. Let’s keep this little policy from only benefiting a select few.

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