When it comes to screening inmate labor, Kingman lets prison do the heavy lifting

AHRON SHERMAN/Miner<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Kingman, like many public entities, uses inmate labor to save money on work that would otherwise go undone. There are concerns, though, that participating inmates aren’t screened as thorougly as they could be.

AHRON SHERMAN/Miner<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Kingman, like many public entities, uses inmate labor to save money on work that would otherwise go undone. There are concerns, though, that participating inmates aren’t screened as thorougly as they could be.

KINGMAN - The local prison's inmate labor program has helped Kingman catch up on work for the last seven months. But the city's reliance on the prison to screen inmates for the program could be seen as risky, considering that the Arizona Department of Corrections' classification of nonviolent offenders has prompted at least one city to set up stricter screening rules.

Right now, a prisoner locked up for committing a low-level violent offense, such as aggravated assault, can work his way to work program eligibility with good behavior provided the following criteria are met:

• No inmates with sentences above the normal range.

• No weapons charges.

• No security threat gang affiliations.

• A clearance level of one or two, which is considered the lowest risk level.

In December, Bullhead City suspended its use of inmate labor after word leaked out to the community that one or two of the prisoners on the city's work crew had been convicted of aggravated assault, said Steve Johnson, Bullhead City's public information director.

"The inmates we had approved were sent back to the prison and then re-interviewed (by Bullhead City staff)," Johnson said. "We looked for what we define as non-violent offenders."

Johnson said the city had interviewed inmates when it began using the program about a year and a half ago. Staff knew the inmates they interviewed with violence in their past, but chose to rely on ADOC regulations that say the inmates fit the requirements of the work program.

But once the community started voicing concerns, the city rethought its process. Now Bullhead City focuses on those incarcerated for DUI and drug offenses to fill its prison labor work crew.

"Our criteria is a little more stringent than the state," Johnson said. "We never had problems with any of the inmates, but once the information came, we decided we needed to re-think our process."

The program is great for the city, Johnson said. It saves a lot of money and work gets done a lot faster with the help of the inmates.

But just because it's a great program doesn't mean that the wants and needs of the community should take a back seat.

"We have a responsibility to the community, and we take it very seriously," he said. "So we did what we thought was best for the community."

Kingman began using the program in February, although there have been times in the past when the city called on the prison's betterment crew to fill odd jobs, said Kingman Public Works Director Rob Owen.

The city uses a work crew made up of less than 10 inmates five days a week for roughly seven hours a day for recycling, weed abatement, trash pick-up, sidewalk sweeping and landscape maintenance along city streets, drainage facilities, city building and parks.

The program has worked well, and inmates have caused no problems, Owen said.

City employees, who pass an extensive background check and receive a full day of training, are tasked with supervising the inmates during work hours, he said.

The city had the option of using trained correctional officers for inmate supervision, but that would've driven the cost up substantially.

As it stands, inmates make 50 cents an hour. If the city had decided to use correctional officers for inmate supervision, it would've had to pay $20 an hour for each one, Owen said. The city splits the work crew into groups that work at the parks, at the public works building and at the golf course. Sometimes, the city splits the inmates into even smaller groups.

Each group needs a supervisor, and at $20 an hour, using correctional officers just wasn't a feasible option, Owen said.

Prison employees do check in on the inmates several times a day to make sure people are where they're supposed to be and that the program is working as intended, he said.

Though Kingman relies on the prison to screen inmates for the work crew, it takes its end of the bargain quite seriously. City employees doubling as inmate supervisors are directed by department heads to follow city-created guidelines for inmate supervision very closely, he said.

Guidelines include:

• Minimizing conversation not related to work.

• Avoid giving inmates anything other than water.

• Monitoring tools issued to inmates for work.

• Keeping cell phones completely out of inmates' sight.

• Not allowing inmates near computers or telephones.

Directions for keeping track of inmates as well as an outline explaining how to replace inmates who cause problems or don't work hard enough are included in the guidelines as well.

City employees are consistently reminded that they must follow the guidelines outlined by the city while supervising inmates, Owen said.

"They're not our buddies," Owen said. "They're here to work."

Without the inmate labor program, a lot of this work, especially weed abatement, just wouldn't get done. Since it started, the city has paid a total of $3,261 for the labor.

The city doesn't rely solely on prisoners for odd jobs. Owen said the city often hires temporary workers for smaller jobs.

"Some circumstances don't lend themselves to using inmates," Owen said. "If a project needs just a couple of guys, it's easier to just grab a couple of temporary workers."

Owen said the city has not discussed handling the inmate-screening portion of the contract with the prison and the Department of Corrections. Owen said the city has full confidence in its supervisory role and the guidelines it created for the program.

"The inmate labor program is a worthwhile program," said Owen. "It's worked well so far."