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A deeper look into Fairfield's plan to hire prisoners to work in parks department

FAIRFIELD — In April, the Fairfield City Council approved a plan to hire prisoners to work in its parks department.

According to the contract with the Iowa Department of Corrections, the city may hire as many as six prisoners from the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. Prisoners would be paid $5.04 per day, and would only be employed in jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. City administration has said the prisoners will mostly be used to perform lawn work in the parks.

The Union reached out to Iowa Department of Corrections communications manager Cord Overton to learn more about this program.

Union: The prisoners’ pay of $5.04 per day sounds very little. Can you help us understand why they are paid such a small amount?

Overton: Inmates that work these types of jobs (we call them “minimum-outs,” short for minimum security outside workers) are paid 56 cents an hour, which is in line with the DOC pay guidelines. I think it’s important to keep a couple factors in mind when discussing the allowance per hour inmates earn. First, they have virtually no expenses while the taxpayers pay for their incarceration.

Many other states charge inmates a fee for their incarceration. In Iowa, the only fees are in the form of a 7 percent tax on convenience items they purchase from the prison commissionary store (which then goes to fund inmate-focused programs as outlined in Iowa Code). Additionally, inmates are never made to work a job during their incarceration, and typically, jobs are quite competitive. Inmates want these work experiences to use their time productively, and we appreciate both nonprofit and for-profit community partners that want to take on the coordination of a work program.

Programs like this allow inmates a way to give back to the community, provide them with a productive way to learn some basic job skills, allow them to earn an allowance that is used toward victim restitution and court debts, and allows for them to have some income they can use toward products in the prison commissary store.

Union: What can prisoners buy with the money they earn?

Overton: A certain amount is automatically set-aside for outstanding victim restitution and court debts. Typically this is around 20 percent of the amount inmates earn working various jobs. The remaining amount can be used toward such things as: the prison commissary store (managed by Iowa Prison Industries) and privileges like phone calls and o-mails (a controlled email system).

Union: How does a prisoner qualify to be part of this program?

Overton: Inmates selected to work on crews outside of the prison are closely screened. They are classified as minimum security, and are often nearing their process of returning to the community from prison. Due to risk considerations, they are typically serving time for non-violent convictions.

Union: Why is it important to give prisoners this kind of work experience before they are released to the outside world? Is the hope that it will give them job experience they can put on a resume to later secure gainful employment?

Overton: Research on the topic of successful community re-entry has consistently shown that if a person released from prison is able to maintain a stable job, they are significantly less likely to return to prison. Programs like this help inmates learn those soft job skills that many of us on the outside take for granted. Seemingly small things like getting up for work each day, showing up on time, and learning to work with others are all things we try to instill in those under our supervision. Programs like these help us to that end.

Union: How are the prisoners supervised while on the job? Is that the responsibility of the Fairfield parks director, or is there someone from the Department of Corrections who watches them?

Overton: City employees will attend an orientation provided by the facility. They are expected to call in a count of the number of inmate workers they have at a prescribed time. They also learn some “do’s and don’ts.” If there is some sort of incident, then facility staff would transport the workers back to the facility.

Union: What stops the prisoners from running away from their job site? Is that a problem with this sort of program, or are the prisoners pretty well behaved overall when they’re on the job?

Overton: Those selected to work outside the secure perimeter understand that the next step for them is release to the community. They also understand that if they were to walk away, they would be charged with escape and if convicted would serve an additional five-year sentence in a higher-custody-level facility. The feedback we get from other communities and agencies who employ our incarcerated individuals is consistently positive. Everything we do in the world of corrections involves a certain element of risk. Programs like this have consistently shown to demonstrate a low-risk but high-reward ratio for all parties involved in the programs.