Long gone are the days when convicts throughout Georgia were assigned to chain gangs as part of their punishment, or farmers, timber and mining companies used prisons as a cheap labor pool.
Today, local governments and prisons, their inmates and the general public benefit from statewide programs that allow prisoners to work on public works projects.
That is definitely the case in Catoosa County.
"It is important that people understand this is a managed system," said County Manager Mike Helton. "Inmates are screened before they are accepted into the program."
Ringgold has contracted a team of laborers from the state prison system for about 15 years, according to City Manager Dan Wright.
"They do many tasks, from weed-eating, cleaning, debris removal, trash details, painting, carpenter work to cleaning the underbrush from the creek beds," he said. "They were very much involved in the tornado cleanup."
Ron Goulart, Fort Oglethorpe manager, agreed with Wright that using prisoners to supplement the city's public works employees is very cost effective. He said the city has a contract for one crew with Walker State Prison. In addition to public works and groundskeeping chores, Goulart said one trusty is assigned to janitorial duties at the city's municipal complex.
County government also avails itself of the Georgia Department of Corrections Program.
The Catoosa County Commission recently renewed agreements with Hays State Prison in Trion, and Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, to each provide two work details, according to Helton.
He said the standard contract of $39,500 per work detail - basically the salary of the guard assigned to oversee each crew - is a bargain.
"We pay a guard's salary but get 10 laborers for that price," he said. "They seem to be very effective in what they do, and without them it would take longer to get the work done. In these days when finances are tight, we hope to maintain this arrangement with the state."
Helton said contracts with the prisons call for each work detail to have one guard and a maximum of 10 laborers who work four 10-hour days per week.
Once, specialized crews of inmates worked on construction projects (they renovated the county's magistrate courts and worked on the Shirley Smith Learning Center), but that program fell victim to budget cuts and liability issues. Now, the inmates/detainees are used as manual laborers.
"We provide the tools, the prisons provide the muscle," Helton said. "Inmates clean storm water systems, pick up trash and follow our mowing crews to maintain right of ways."
He said that immediately following the April 27 tornado, prison officials called to say, "Let us know what you need," and sent inmates to help with cleanup and debris removal until a private contractor could be hired.
Local officials said residents seem comfortable with inmates helping with upkeep of public property; complaints are extremely rare and no prisoners have fled.
"The only problems we have are when mowers kick up a rock that breaks a window," Goulart said.
Email Mike O'Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org