Prisoners beautify cityscape while saving city dollars

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Collecting litter, painting and clearing snow, inmates donned in orange jumpsuits are an increasingly common sight around Alexandria and theyre doing about $200,000 worth of work annually.

When Dana Lawhorne assumed command of the Sheriffs Office in 2006, one deputy was assigned to oversee prisoner work detail, mostly around the city detention center. With the help of former City Councilman Tim Lovain, he tripled the program. 

As budget cuts have forced the city into a hiring freeze and the struggling economy hit the coffers of local organizations, Lawhornes work detail program has become ever prominent. 

It was just something that made sense, he said. We saw the need. The work was there, work that wasnt getting done, in terms of improving the look of the city.

Four years later, three deputies are tasked with escorting teams of four inmates for odd jobs around the city, from moving furniture to landscaping. The first year of the program, workers did about $150,000 worth of work. That figure has grown to $200,000 and looks to increase further as the citys agencies make due with less funding. 

Officials calculate savings by comparing inmates wages a dollar a day to mid-grade municipal employees. But because the details often tackle jobs otherwise left undone its hard to call their work true savings.

Still, there are tangible benefits to the city, according to Lt. Douglas Schuler. He oversees the program and has watched as the work details grew ever popular among shorthanded city agencies and civic groups. 

Weve always received good reviews and now we have a never ending list, he said. Were always getting requests to do jobs.

Its a break for low-security prisoners, too. With work detail comes the prospect of early release and better meals than their peers.

Last Friday, four prisoners strolled down King Street in Old Town, accompanied by Dep. James Velez, scrapping clean the light poles along the main drag. Theyre not chained, cuffed or otherwise restrained, but Velez isnt afraid they might take the opportunity for a jailbreak.

Prisoners are thoroughly vetted before allowed on the work detail, Schuler said. They must have 18 months or less to serve, no detainers an outstanding warrant in another state and be convicted on a non-violent crime, he said.

Most are serving time for alcohol-related offenses, petty theft, fraud or parole violations. Before they head out for a job, Velez or his colleagues, Dep. Gregory Zedalis and Dep. George Wooden, make sure theyre not taking a prisoner to a familiar neighborhood. And then theres the gut check.

You know when something is wrong or something is off, Velez said.

He recalled one prisoner learning his girlfriend was dating another man, and he was laying hands on the inmates children. When the children went missing in Fairfax County (they were later found) the deputies removed him from work detail, Velez said. 

We kind of have a good rapport, Zedalis said. You know everybody and they know who theyre dealing with.

The prisoners on work detail are kept separate from the rest of the inmate population, so theres no chance of smuggling contraband in or out, according to Tony DiCesare, chief deputy.

For all the benefits for the city and prisoners, the detail also gives the deputies a boost. If they didnt before, they now know their way around power tools, Bobcat loaders and paintbrushes. And theres a sense of accomplishment, Wooden said. 

Schuler drew comparisons to Stephen Kings Andy Dufresne tarring the roof of the fictional Shawshank State Prison.

Except we dont give them a bucket of suds when theyre done, he said.

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