Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 18, 2009

Rupert Howell

County leaders need to consider hidden cost of inmate labor

Recurring rumors that “inmates are running the asylum” were given some credibility last weekend when two state work inmates were seen by Panola’s sheriff in the airport’s courtesy car near the Curtis Community at 1:30 a.m. Sunday.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

What made the matter worse was that after questioning, one of three inmates said to be involved in somewhat similar escapades attempted suicide. He apparently realized the length of hard time he was facing since the new crimes qualified him as an habitual offender.

A combination of human error and inadequate equipment seem to have led to the latest fiasco and left the sheriff’s department red-faced. Those errors are correctable — some remedies already are in place. Likening the situation to a slow leak in a tire, it doesn’t always get the immediate attention it deserves. Last week’s incident turned a slow leak into a full-fledged blowout.

The late Sheriff Shot Bright loved his inmates, according to Sheriff Otis Griffin. One deputy said a deputy or jailer who talked harshly or mistreated any inmate would find himself on the carpet explaining those actions to Bright who had served as jailer for a couple of decades before becoming sheriff.

His widow, Mary Nell Bright, explained that the former Sheriff thought that the inmates could be rehabilitated and deserved a second chance. Bright turned the facility into a plantation style-fixture, self-sufficient in many areas.

He wanted the prisoners to grow their own garden on the site at the sprawling facility located next to Panola County’s well maintained airport that is also maintained by inmate labor.

A dormitory style building behind the main jail facility was built during a former administration to house state inmates who had been charged and convicted for nonviolent crimes. In return, the states pays the county a daily fee per inmate. The county can use these inmates as labor on public property. These are the men in striped pants that you see riding on back of the garbage trucks and maintaining grounds and buildings belonging to the public such as the courthouse.

Inmate selection is somewhat political, according to Griffin, who said local residents with family members in the state correctional system want them to serve time close by. The sheriff volunteers that having state inmates with local friends and family too close may not be such a good idea.

It’s also convenient. If there is an inmate who qualifies to be housed at the local facility and who has a skill, their services can quickly be put to use. In essence, the setup provides Panola County with cheap labor.

The price paid is that we expose ourselves. These inmates have contact with the outside world. They can more easily access contraband. After riding on back of the garbage truck they can become familiar with our roads, homes and habits. And yes, sometimes this exposure involves crime.

Our decision makers and elected officials must weigh whether the price is worth the benefit. How much would it raise our garbage fee to hire workers? How much millage increase would it take to do routine maintenance and construction projects currently done by state inmates?

Then there is the moral question of how many inmates are actually getting a second chance and gaining self-confidence in preparing to re-enter life as a productive citizen—an effort that is hard to put a price on.

Properly supervised this program could continue to benefit Panola County, its citizens and municipalities. Left to leak slowly, we will continue to have blowouts.