Prison Work, Way Beyond License Plates And Rocks

Inmates at Second Chances Farm in Maryland tend to thoroughbreds after their racing days are over.

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Inmates at Second Chances Farm in Maryland tend to thoroughbreds after their racing days are over.

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

There are two prevalent stereotypes for inmate work programs. Either prisoners swing pick axes at a pile of rocks, or pound out license plates. Of course, anyone who drives knows they also pick up garbage from the side of the highway from time to time, and work in the prison laundry facility.

But while reading an article in my hometown newspaper last week, I realized there's a lot more to it than that. We have had some pretty strong storms blow through the Mid-Atlantic region recently, and inmates from a local correctional facility drew beach cleanup detail.

Pick up a large piece of driftwood. Throw it in a trailer. Repeat.

"It's strenuous work," the 33-year-old Baltimore man [Robert Richardson] said between logs. "It will keep you healthy. I'll tell you that."

He wasn't complaining. Working in the shadow of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge - with sand under his feet and a cool breeze on his face - sure beat the dorms at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup, he said.

"I haven't seen the beach in a long time," said Richardson.

Now, that job still falls pretty neatly in line with the road cleanup crews', but a bit further down, the reporter listed a few of Maryland's other work programs for inmates. They build homes, maintain cemeteries, and according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, have planted more than 2.5 million trees in just the last three years. Two programs in particular surprised me. There's an inmate-tended rescue farm for thoroughbred horses, and prisoners have also seeded the Chesapeake Bay with baby oysters.

I had no idea of the scope of projects the inmates are involved in. And though they make just a few dollars a day for their labor, programs like those in Maryland are being cut in many states. So how does a few dollars' worth of labor for a handful of inmates have an impact on a state's bottom line? Two words: transportation and supervision. In Michigan, those costs added up to $10 million, paid by taxpayers, in 2010. Florida, North Carolina and New York are also making cuts.

And though it's hard to knock programs that help the bay and beautify the environment, some critics, like Paul Wright, editor of the Prison Legal News, say inmates shouldn't be doing the work. As he explained to USA Today, "when a prisoner gets a job, they're taking a job from someone else in the community."

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