LAFAYETTE, Ga. — At 5:30 a.m., Tyson Everett will climb out of his cot, grab a quick meal and get patted down before hopping on the bus that will take him outside the barbed wire fence.
He won’t be sure what he’s doing till he gets to the work site. Tearing down old walls. Pulling wire. Breaking apart bricks. He just knows he’ll be too exhausted to get into any trouble when he gets back to Hays State Prison in Trion.
“You don’t sleep, but you lay there. You’re too tired to do anything else,” he said during his lunch break at the LaFayette library construction site. “Busting brick’s tough work.”
Everett is part of the 24-man inmate work crew helping build Walker County a taxpayer-funded $4 million library. The inmate work crew, one of 35 across Georgia, is saving the state about $450,000.
According to Bob Plemons, a Department of Corrections program overseer, inmate labor is typically able to save 35 percent on projects built from the ground up.
Tennessee has a similar program. Inmates do some building work, grounds maintenance, painting and other similar projects for government and community service organizations.
In fiscal year 2010 to 2011, nearly 700 Tennessee inmates did more than 820,000 hours of community service work for a total of $6 million in savings, according to Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
Savings figures for all of Georgia are not kept by the state, but with about 28 projects completed annually, savings in Georgia add up quickly.
“The state makes a lot of money off of us, a lot of money,” Everett said over an oatmeal cream pie, two cookies and some sweet tea. “It’s free labor. You can’t beat it.”
Everett, a heating and air conditioning specialist outside of prison, is serving up to six years on false imprisonment and meth possession charges. Like the roughly 425 other inmates in the construction program, he has a short enough term and tame enough of an offense to meet volunteer requirements.
Those inmates’ work helps complete projects that may never be built without the savings the program provides. The LaFayette library, for example, would have been significantly cut back without the program savings, according to Lecia Eubanks, the library’s director.
To be eligible for $2 million in state funds, library directors first had to secure matching local funds. When some of that money fell through, it looked like a majority of the construction would be cut.
The Department of Corrections had been looking for an inmate construction project in Northwest Georgia, an area that had seen fewer benefits from the program than other parts of the state.
“It brought our building back to being a viable project,” Eubanks said. “It would have been very hard to start butchering the building and it was not something we were looking forward to doing, so this is really something that we needed.”
The LaFayette library project is the seventh government building in Northwest Georgia to get help from the inmate labor program, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
CHANGING CONVICTS’ CONDITIONS
The minimum security section of Hays isn’t that bad of a lockup, Everett said. He’s sleeping in an army-style barracks rather than a cell and can walk outside at any time to play basketball or toss horseshoes. There’s a TV room where inmates watch movies and argue about sports. Football season’s the best because it keeps the TVs blaring Saturday through Monday.
“It’s kind of like being at summer camp, but you just can’t leave,” Everett said.
Of course, most campers don’t worry about being stabbed to death. In August, one Hays prisoner met that fate after an early-morning fight, making life behind the wire anything but easy.
“It’s not doing anything but weighing you down,” said Edward Allen, a former roofer who’s serving two years for terrorisitic threats.
David Johnson, an electrician imprisoned for meth possession, agreed.
“You get in that mindset of being institutionalized,” he said.
So some inmates jump at the chance to get outside the yard, even if it’s for grueling work.
MARGINAL PUBLIC WORKS
Plemons said almost every inmate labor project would otherwise be killed for lack of funds. For example, a small town 40 miles away from the nearest contractor couldn’t pay someone to come out just to pour a few yards of sidewalk.
But to get that sidewalk in with inmate labor, a town’s going to have to have patience. There’s a 12- to 18-month waiting list, and the untrained inmates can take significantly longer to finish a project than the professionals.
That longer work period makes most counties opt for private work, leaving the inmate labor for those projects that really need it.
“It’s good for everybody concerned, and certainly we’re not out there to knock jobs away from anyone in the private sector,” Plemons said.
DAMAGE TO LABOR MARKET?
Government construction jobs are usually bid out to private contractors. Plemons argues the taxpayer money for projects inmates work on simply doesn’t exist, but some worry inmate labor can mean fewer private construction jobs.
“It’s slave labor,” said Charlie Key, treasurer of the Georgia AFL-CIO, “There’s no way that a contractor trying to do business can compete with prison labor.”
Key also said he worries about inmate work conditions. As prisoners, they have little ability to complain about unfair treatment, bad bosses or dangerous work, he said.
The inmates grumble to one another about their work environment. Not enough breaks, some complain. Others look at their two slices of white bread, mayo packet, piece of cheese and slice of bologna and wish they could be eating the McDonald’s or Krystal fare their supervisors get.
But Plemons said, and several inmates agreed, that the work provides valuable experience that will help ex-cons find jobs after they leave the penal system.
“It’s a benefit to us and it’s a benefit to the entities that we’re working for, but it’s real important to note it’s a benefit to that inmate,” Plemons said.
Everett is confident he’ll be able to find a job when he gets out. He said there’s high demand for HVAC installers, and he’s looking forward to getting back to what he knows rather than doing the heavy grunt work on the inmate crews.
But for now, he’s content to keep his skills sharp, work hard and pass out in his cot every night.
“It ain’t home,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s comfortable.”