AUGUSTA — Work crews of inmates from state correctional facilities are providing state agencies, as well as local schools and towns with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of repairs, construction, road work, painting and other maintenance every year.
“We use $10 an hour as a value for the labor,” Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte said in an interview. “We have some jobs we do that are more sophisticated, and the labor is worth more than that.”
For example, he said, there are work crews that overhaul surplus military vehicles and add tanks to them to carry water for the Forest Service. He said inmates also make or re-make furniture that has been used by the Department of Corrections and other state agencies.
“Some of those jobs are worth a lot more than painting a fence or clearing brush,” Ponte said, “If you put a better estimate on the value of the work, we could be in the millions of dollars a year.”
He said that in 2011, the work crews provided 39,201 hours for projects as diverse as remodeling offices, bridge maintenance for the Department of Transportation and clearing snow from the roofs of both state and municipal buildings.
“It’s a good service, both for the community and for the inmates and crews that go out,” Ponte said. “The inmates feel good about giving back to the community.”
He said the Department of Corrections provides crews for projects whenever it can, although sometimes a request is denied because of advice from the attorney general’s office.
“We try to help as much as we can and do every project that we can do,” Ponte said. “We haven’t been able to do all that has been requested.”
The agency is on pace to increase significantly the number of hours provided by the inmate work crews. In 2010, the crews provided 22,890 hours of work on various projects. In the first six months of this year, the crews have provided 21,160 hours of work.
“I think it is important to stress it is not just anybody that is out on these crews,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “These are people who are trusties who have shown they can behave themselves. I think it is important for the public to know there is very little risk from these inmates.”
He said he is pleased that the department is increasing the amount of projects they do. He said it follows county jails’ long tradition of providing crews for local governments to do maintenance work for schools and municipal facilities.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said he was not aware of the scope of the efforts by the department, but he praised the assistance to municipalities.
“All the help that we can get is appreciated,” he said, “but in the scheme of things, with the cutback in state revenue-sharing funds and the fact K-12 education is nowhere near the 55 percent the voters mandated, no question it’s a help, but it’s not significant when compared to the cuts.”
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Democratic senator on the Criminal Justice Committee, is a former co-chairman of the panel. He said the committee has urged the department to increase its work crews for years, and he is pleased they are doing that.
“There is a lot of misperception about the work crews,” he said. “Some criticize that they are taking away jobs. I don’t see it that way.”
Gerzofsky said the work crews benefit the inmates, giving them a chance to use their skills and acquire new ones. He said the program is a win-win for the department because it improves inmates’ morale while helping communities.
“There is also a lot of help for state taxpayers in some of the projects they do,” he said.
A good example of that is the Department of Transportation, which has had three inmate crews working on bridge-maintenance projects every month for more than two years.
Ponte said the staff is always looking for ways to expand the number of projects done by the work crews throughout the state.