June 28, 2006

Sheriff Expands Inmate Labor Programs

They're nothing like the chain gangs of yesteryear, unless you take into account the chainsaw wielded by an erstwhile tree care specialist, now a prisoner at the Suffolk County jail. Last week, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and Legislator Kate Browning (D. Shirley) joined with County Executive Steve Levy to announce an expansion of a work program that benefits both inmates and county residents.

It was a gorgeous late spring day. Vivid azure skies, and brilliant sun bouncing off lush greenery were enough to make the average office worker, much less an incarcerated individual, long for the outdoors. At adjacent county historic sites in Yaphank groups of workers labored al fresco – painting, prepping for the laying of electrical cable, and landscaping. The Talking Heads played on the radio, and the only thing distinguishing the men from any other outdoor work crew were the neon- orange jumpsuits marked with lettering identifying them as prisoners.

In New York State, jails can't require inmates to work. But, according to Charles Ewald warden of the county jail in Riverhead, when asked, lots of prisoners volunteer. In fact close to 200 inmates are employed at a variety of sites. An estimated 150 prisoners work at the county farm in Yaphank, toiling in the bakery, laundry, and meat processing plant. They are higher security inmates and not permitted outside the facilities. Low security inmates can also be seen periodically on the side of roads around Suffolk, picking up litter under the close supervision of guards.

A recent discussion between Browning and DeMarco has resulted in an expansion of the Sheriff's Labor Assistance Program. According to the legislator, members of the Yaphank Historical Society approached her about making repairs to the historic Hawkins House property. Money was absolutely an object and Society members wondered whether the county could help tidy overgrown grounds. "I reached out to the sheriff and the county executive," Browning said, smiling as she surveyed industrious groups of men mowing grass and clearing brush.

The work programs carry a double benefit in terms of employment skills, according to Lieutenant Gerard Senatore, the executive officer at the Yaphank correctional facility. The county benefits when inmates, like the professional landscaper mentioned above, bring abilities learned prior to incarceration to a task. Conversely, inmates can learn skills that could help them find work when they're released. "The inmates are doing a productive day's work for the taxpayers of Suffolk County, are building good work habits and are gaining work experience which they can parlay into steady employment once their time is served," Levy said following a roadside press conference in Yaphank.

It costs $200 a day to house inmates in Suffolk, Browning pointed out. "Tax dollars pay to keep them in jail, now they're paying back the taxpayers. They're cleaning up our communities and restoring our buildings. The guys are loving it. They're happy to be out here and the weather's beautiful. This is great," she enthused.

Locally, when he was chair of the legislature's Parks Committee, South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman made restoration and maintenance of the county's multiple historic holdings a focal point. (In fact, one project, major repairs to Third House in Montauk is underway this summer.) During his tenure on the Parks Committee, Schneiderman and colleagues asked then-Sheriff Al Tish whether inmates could assist in routine repairs and maintenance at county properties. According to Schneiderman's chief of staff Eric Brown, the committee never did get a good answer as to why such a program wasn't already in place.

This week, Schneiderman lauded DeMarco's initiative. "I applaud Sheriff DeMarco and Legislator Browning for getting this program off the ground. Maintaining the county's many historic buildings and parklands is a daunting undertaking. The expansion of the SLAP program will certainly ease the burden for parks employees."

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