By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A little over a year ago, Atmore Mayor Jim Staff noted the financial savings generated by contracting with the Alabama Department of Corrections for inmates to work for the city, saying: “I really don’t know how we would operate without them.”
Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced ADOC to put its Community Work Program (CWP) on hold, Staff and other city leaders have seen the affect the inmate labor’s absence has had on city services, including streets and sanitation, cemeteries and beautification.
Under the program, state inmates assigned to minimum-custody correctional facilities — such as the Fountain Correctional Facility Annex — are considered for work details with city, county and state government agencies.
To help take up some of the slack, the city — which usually employs 19 inmates — has had to hire some new employees to help collect solid waste and perform other tasks that inmates were doing.
“We are undermanned without them,” said Streets & Sanitation Department Director Calvin Grace, who has been taking his turn on the city’s garbage truck during the pause in the program. “But we’re in the process of bringing on some new people. We’re going to make it happen.”
Inmate labor is also vital to the operations of the city’s cemeteries and beautification departments.
The cemeteries department is charged with keeping the two municipal burial grounds (Oak Hill and Fairview) clean and the grass cut in each, as well as Stallworth and Lucious cemeteries.
The beautification department maintains city rights of way on U.S. 31 and Alabama 21 and provides the upkeep for city parks, city hall, the public library, the SAIL Center and other city facilities.
A spokesman for the beautification department said the inmate workers are missed but noted that high school students have been hired to fill the gap until the state prison system resumes the work program.
Samantha Rose, a spokeswoman for the state corrections department, said prison officials have not yet set a time for releasing inmates to work in the program.
“The ADOC has not at this time determined a timeline for the safe resumption of its work release and/or work center programs,” said Rose. “The health, safety, and well-being of our inmates, staff, and the public is our top priority. Once it is determined that the resumption of our work release programs is aligned with this commitment, detailed information will be shared with our community partners and the public.”
Staff said he feels strongly that the inmate labor, which City Clerk Becca Smith said saves the city at least $600,000 per year in salaries and benefits, would be returning once the coronavirus pandemic has run its course.
“I don’t know when we’re going to get the inmates back,” the mayor said. “Calvin has been calling out there, and they (officials at Fountain Correctional) don’t know, either. We are anticipating that they are coming back at some point.”
Cities, towns and other government agencies that use CWP resources pay a daily fee of $15 per inmate. Each work-program inmate receives $2 per day credit in his canteen account.
Smith said the city pays around $92,000 per year for the inmates’ service, and Staff pointed out that every entity and individual involved benefits from the prison-based partnership.
“The program saves the city money, the state makes some money off it, and the inmates do, too,” Staff said. “It’s a good program for everybody involved.”