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Opinion  Last Updated: Feb 5th, 2009 - 07:16:17

Atkins: Prison Work Program a Good Idea
Chair, House Corrections Committee
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Last year, I sponsored legislation that sought to create a prisoner work program.  House Bill 483 cleared the House, but stalled in the Senate.  In the near future, I’ll be re-introducing this legislation.  I believe that if it’s enacted, it will benefit corrections officers, the public and even the inmates themselves.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that clothing, feeding and housing one prisoner costs Delaware taxpayers nearly $30,000 per year.  I think Delawareans should be getting more for their money than simply keeping these criminals behind bars.

My bill would authorize the Department of Correction to form a pilot program using prison labor to perform maintenance and community service projects in Sussex County.  As I envision it, groups of inmates would leave the Sussex Correctional Institution each day under the escort of armed corrections officers to perform simple, labor-intensive tasks.

There many tasks - like clearing debris from our roads, railroad tracks and beaches – that need to be performed on a regular basis.  It’s obvious to me that using inmates to carry out this work is making good use of an underused resource.  My feeling is that we’re paying for them anyway, why shouldn’t we be getting a better return on our investment?

Aside from this benefit, I think this program would be a plus for our corrections officers.  Such a program would take the officers to different parts of the county and place them in charge of getting their convicts to accomplish the needed work. 

Not only will this give corrections officers a healthy change-of-venue from their normal confines, it will also help them to develop supervisory skills.  Additionally, I believe corrections officers will get a welcome sense of accomplishment on seeing a needed task successfully brought to a conclusion.

The atmosphere of the prison where these working inmates are housed should benefit as well.  Inmates on work details will not be available to interact with the inmates left behind – reducing the chances for conflict.  Even after the work detail returns, I believe that men that have performed a full day of manual labor are going to be tired and less likely to seek confrontations.

Under terms of my bill, the Department of Correction would have the discretion to determine which prisoners are appropriate for the program.

Last year, over half of the General Assembly’s 62 members signed on to sponsor my legislation, including the chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, State Sen. Jim Vaughn.  I expect to have similar support for the measure this time around.

I’m optimistic that this bill will not only be enacted, but it will lead to a successful Sussex County pilot program.  Ultimately, I believe we’ll have this practice in place in all three counties.

Of course, I need to point out that implementing this program would be subject to having sufficient numbers of properly trained corrections officers on staff.  The issue of attracting new men and women to fill open corrections officer positions, while retaining and training existing corrections officers, is central to everything we’re doing in our correctional system. 

I remain committed to making sure that corrections officers are fairly compensated and treated with the respect that their demanding and vital job deserves.

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