No chain gangs for inmates Inmate labor: Howard County jail program provides sensible transition toward eventual release.

July 15, 1998

CHAIN GANGS. The images remain vivid. They're from old movies such as "Cool Hand Luke" or more recent newspaper photos of a short-lived revival of the practice in the South. But America has no real chain gangs today.

The exploitation of convict labor by abusive penal authorities has been, for the most part, relegated to U.S. history. In its place, mutually beneficial work arrangements have been developed.

Howard County recently started one of the more innovative programs. County jail inmates are assigned to the Department of Public Works to perform menial chores. Instead of being paid, they can earn time off their sentences.

If they do well, the inmates may qualify for work release, in which they hold a paid job during the day and return to the jail each night.

Leonard Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state corrections department, says these work programs can be the difference in recidivism. Inmates who have the work experience to get a job upon their release are less likely to commit new crimes that put them back in jail.

The Howard program began in April. Five inmates are handling odd jobs such as painting and cleaning.

The inmates thus far have performed more than 215 hours of free DTC work, representing a savings of nearly $6,000 that the Public Works Department didn't have to pay to hired laborers.

Melanie C. Pereira, director of the Howard County Detention Center, said the next step is to begin home detention. Inmates who have shown they can be trusted through the work programs won't have to be incarcerated if their movements can be tracked by electronic monitors.

The aim is to gradually reacquaint the inmates with society so that maybe they will appreciate it more when they return.

In Howard County, the average jail time is 18 months. Programs that make it easier for inmates to make the transition to freedom are worth the cost. It's more expensive to keep them locked up.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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