A Good Day's Work

Marion, KY – Roy Millikan likes to mow lawns. He likes the sun and the fresh air and the chance to work. He considers the act a privilege because it's one of the few chances he gets to go outside. Mowing a lawn is an opportunity to leave his cell.

"You get a chance to maybe pay back the state for the mistakes we have made. You know, it's kind of like a community service."

Millikan is an inmate with the Crittenden County Detention Center. For the past two months, he has participated in the facility's work release program.

"We do hard work. Like I said, it's a privilege for us."

In the program, 30 felons leave the jail for community jobs like yard work for local organizations, cooking at the senior citizens' center and cleaning the courthouse. Based on the current minimum wage, the inmates save county residents $10,000 per week in manual labor. Judge-Executive Fred Brown says the county also uses work release inmates for extra manpower during cleanup after natural disasters.

"It's given us projects in the community that we've never had before. I don't know what we would have done during this ice storm and the cleanup after without the help from the inmates."

Yet, prisoners like Millikan may not be able to mow lawns much longer. As the economy declines, the county fiscal court has to trim the jail's budget, and the extra guards needed for the program could put it on the chopping block. On July 21, the court will examine its overall budget, which includes the work release program.

"Obviously, as this recession goes deeper and deeper, we have to look at every aspect of county government and be prepared for when this thing might get worse or not get worse."

Jailer Rick Riley says the program cost the jail a considerable amount of money annually. While the state pays prisoners 86 cents per day, the jail has to front the money for gas to run lawn mowers and for guards to supervise work outings. These expenses amount to approximately $500,000 per year. If the fiscal court nixed the program, the jailer could trim his workforce by 18 to 20 guards.

"It's like everything else. You know, economics makes us go in all different kinds of directions, and we're just sitting down and taking a hard look at which way we're going and how much we're saving."

Riley says part of the problem is the Crittenden County Detention Center. The $7.7 million jail opened in early 2008 and has operated at a deficit since then. The first year, officials paid bills with coal severance funds, and this year, they will receive $350,000 in one-time assistance from the city of Marion. Magistrates expected the initial trouble, but they don't know how to make ends meet in 2010 and 2011. If worse comes to worst, cutting the work release program would certainly solve their problems.

"Money's going to talk, and right now, we're just having to put all of it in a basket and see the best way to spend what money we do have as tax-payer dollars."

While eliminating the program would cut jobs for Crittenden guards and limit prisoners' time outdoors, it would also cause problems for Tina Walker. As manager of the Ben E. Clement Mineral museum, Walker has come to rely on detention center workers. In the past, they have painted the museum and done weed-eating around the building. Some, including Millikan, mow the lawn. Although these tasks might be small, they are necessary for museum upkeep.

"We would have to find someone to mow the lawn again. That would be the major thing that we would have to do, and of course, with us being a non-profit organization, money is tight. So, you know, it could hurt us financially if we had to start paying someone to do it."

Walker also says that not only did the program ease the museum's financial strain, but it seemed to help the prisoners, as well.

"The ladies that came over here and helped us, they were just thrilled to be helping out in the community. It was nice for them to get out of jail, and then they were proud to be helping with the museum or with the community in general."

Lieutenant Shea Holliman oversees state prisoners at the detention center and has watched the inmates grow personally as they participate in the program. She says productivity works wonders.

"A lot of them have changed their total attitude because some of the people out on the work release site - the supervisors and the other employees - have treated them like another employee and have been respectful and been friends. Being in the community and around the public has, I think, benefited a lot of the inmates."

Yet, no matter the good the program does for the inmates and the community, its pros may not out-weigh its con. In today's economy, The Crittenden County Detention Center would simply end up as another recession casualty, leaving lawns un-mowed and Millikan and his fellow prisoners in jail. Jailer Riley, however, says that decision hasn't been made yet. If officials could find money elsewhere, the inmates might still be able to man their kitchens, weed eaters and paint cans.