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Inmate labor fuels county government

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Crews log more than 30,000 hours in work detail program this year

By Tracy Harris

They’re behind the scenes, staffing the recycling center, cutting grass and stringing Christmas lights. They’re polite, hardworking and hard to miss in their orange shirts.

These county jail inmates do a lot of work around Oldham County as part of the jail’s work detail program. Inmates logged more than 29,700 hours of work from January to August this year.

“They’ve always presented themselves with the utmost respect,” said Doug Johnson, county maintenance director. “It’s a privilege to them to be able to do this.”

Johnson typically has one or two inmates working for the maintenance department and said many inmates see it as a way to give back to the community. 

“It makes them feel like they’re part of something better than what they were before,” he said.

Chris Swan has been part of the program since October, and spent much of his time helping install lights for Light Up La Grange.

Knowing that  people are going to see the light show pushed him farther, he said, and encouraged him to do his best.

“It takes my mind off things,” he said of the work, and gives a “little taste of freedom.”

At any given time, about 17 inmates are working for county government at the road department, recycling center, animal shelter and parks department. 

Oldham County Jailer Mike Simpson said on a typical day, eight inmates are working offsite while eight work within the jail facility.

Without inmate labor, the county wouldn’t have a recycling center, according to Linda Fountain, director of solid waste and recycling.

“They’re invaluable,” she said. She’s the only employee of the county’s solid waste and recycling department. 

Fountain relies on three or four inmates and the deputy jailer who oversees them to run the recycling center.

The inmates help with the once weekly school recycling pickups, litter abatement, shredding day, tire amnesty day and more.

“This is who my staff is,” she said. 

The jail launched the program about 10 years ago, according to Simpson. 

For their work, inmates earn credit that reduces their jail sentence and receive daily meal tickets that allow them to eat lunch. 

Johnson said broaster chicken from the Marathon gas station on Ky. 53 is a favorite.

Inmates who qualify for the program are low-risk and are typically sentenced to 60 days or less. 

A judge determines program eligibility during sentencing for county inmates, and the Department of Corrections determines eligibility of state inmates.

Work detail inmates are convicted of various crimes, including DUIs, burglaries and drug charges.

All county employees who supervise inmates have been through a certification training. 

For the recycling center, a deputy sheriff transports and supervises the inmates. 

Other departments, like the maintenance department, sign out inmates and transports them to the work site. 

Inmates are searched for contraband when re-entering the facility.

Johnson has asked District Court Judge Diana Wheeler to keep an eye out for certain skills to make sure those people received work detail when sentenced.

With 17 buildings on his maintenance list, Johnson said inmate labor is vital to keeping county facilities in good condition.

Inmates change air filters, replace emergency lights and install carpeting. 

Renovations to make more office space for the county attorney’s office meant clearing out a storage room full of unused furniture and files.

“If it weren’t for those guys, we’d still be moving furniture,” he said.

But the inmates also take ownership of their work, he said, which is important.

That’s something Fountain experiences, too. She said the inmates are invested in the recycling program and often suggest improvements.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Fountain said, because she wants to see them complete their jail time, but doesn’t want to lose a skilled worker.

Johnson said he knows the inmates are serving time in jail for a reason, but believes the work release program has a positive impact on inmates and could reduce recidivism.

“They get such gratification from being in the community and feeling like they’re giving back,” he said.