County votes to stop using prison labor

County votes to stop using prison labor

County votes to stop using prison labor

Alachua County government will stick with its earlier decision to stop using prison labor for county work projects.

Dozens of residents showed up to a Tuesday night hearing to support the program’s end, holding up red signs during the meeting that read “Cut FDOC Contracts.”

After much debate, commissioners voted 4-1 to stick with their earlier plan to end the use of state prison laborers for county work projects. The county had paid the state’s Department of Corrections nearly $500,000 a year for the inmates’ work, but the inmates weren’t compensated.

The inmates handled such tasks as filling potholes, mixing concrete and mowing grass. While unpaid, the inmates who work outside of prisons can earn up to 10 days off their sentence per month, and to work outdoors is considered a privilege.

Before the vote, Commissioner Mike Byerly began the debate, since he had urged fellow commissioners to revisit their decision from several weeks ago.

The initial decision to end the agreement with the Department of Corrections lacked transparency, he said, and county residents ought to know more before such an important decision is made.

“We all campaigned on open, accountable, transparent government,” he said. “Those words, they mean something.”

He said he spoke with multiple people about the labor crews, but couldn’t settle his questions about the issue.

He questioned advocates’ contention that ending the labor crews would be a step toward total prison reform.

Byerly said while the Florida prison system may not be perfect, he questioned how halting the use of crews from Gainesville Work Camp would lead to that reform. He suggested the board gather more detailed information about how ending the contracts would lead to reform, hear more from former or current inmates who work on the crews and finally, send the DOC the board’s list of questions about the program.

Commissioner Ken Cornell initially said he wanted to terminate the contracts immediately, saying the only way to mend a broken program is to end it.

“I think the way we get to the program, you stop using the broken program,” he said.

Cornell later said he would be open to Byerly’s request to receive more information.

Over 20 people approached the board to support ending the contracts with the DOC, many as advocates, citizens or former inmates.

“You made the right decision before, absolutely,” one former inmate told board members.

The inmate positions will now turn into 20 full-time jobs, with funds coming from general fund reserves and other sources.

Byerly was the only vote against ending the contracts.

In another decision, the board voted unanimously to request information about how the move might lead to fuller reform, and asked the county attorney to look into compensating inmates for their work upon their release.

The county originally decided to end its use of prison labor at a Dec. 11 meeting after several advocates and former inmates approached the board, objecting to the contracts, some calling the inmates’ labor a form of slavery.

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