MONTGOMERY — State, county and city agencies are increasingly using $15-a-day labor provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Not long ago, agencies received the labor from minimum-security inmates for free, but the corrections department said it began charging the $15 rate in order to help cover its costs — and to fill in the gaps from a lack of state funding.
In return, agencies said they have access to a pool of cheap labor on short notice to do jobs that others won't do.
The government offices, and some nonprofits, paid about $3.7 million for inmate labor in fiscal 2012. That's up slightly from $3.5 million in 2010, according to information obtained through a public records request at the Department of Corrections. Agencies range from the state Department of Transportation — which pays $50 a day — to local community centers, the governor's mansion and universities and K-12 school systems.
The labor, which inmates volunteer for, saves the agencies millions of dollars a year, corrections department spokesman Brian Corbett said.
"It is still a cost-effective labor pool," Corbett said. "(Agencies) couldn't afford it if they were paying full-time employees."
Decatur City Schools has used the program from time to time for several years, usually for moving equipment during school renovations, Superintendent Ed Nichols said.
"It is cheaper, but it is also more efficient timewise," Nichols said. "One reason we use them is because it is a very short-term thing."
By the time the district sought out and hired private people to do two days' worth of work, the inmates could have it done, he said.
"If you are renovating a school, the longer it takes you (to move equipment) the longer it takes you to get that contractor in there," Nichols said.
Inmates never come into contact with students, Nichols said.
For the city of Athens, which spent about $28,000 on inmates last fiscal year, the program offers a cost savings and a pool of workers — especially in the summer months — for jobs that are sometimes hard to fill.
"It is a readily available workforce," said Dolph Bradford, manager of the street department. The inmates do street crew work, landscaping and some work in the mechanics shop.
"They are not lead mechanic or anything, but we try to find out what their backgrounds are and place them where they can benefit us and hopefully them in the future," Bradford said.
Red Bay officials paid $20,904 from the program.
Of the $15, an inmate will receive $2. The program differs from the state's work-release program, where inmates can be employed by private businesses for a prevailing hourly wage. That program generated about $9.5 million for the corrections department in 2010.
Most inmates working for the government are classified as "minimum out" and don't normally have constant corrections department supervision.
At least one large user of the labor said it is backing away from the program.
In 2012, Baldwin County spent $135,369 on inmate labor. County Commissioner Frank Burt Jr. said the county has used the inmates extensively for solid waste pickup and at the county landfill.
"We've had some issues with inmates doing some illegal things, some things they shouldn't have," Burt said. "We got some bad coverage this last year with goings-on at the landfill."
The Press-Register in Mobile reported earlier this year that cold beer, pornography, prescription drugs, civilian clothing, televisions and cellphones were found in an inmate break area at the landfill.
Burt said the inmate program was better when it was free and before inmates started working for private employers, too.
"I believe that the pool of good candidates is not what it was," he said. "We could use the whole pool before."
Now, more Baldwin County taxpayer money is going to fund prisons, Burt said.
"It is taking it out of Baldwin County and sending it to the state," he said. "But the state does a pretty good job of that. They come down here and pick our pockets pretty regularly."
Nearly half, about $1.6 million, of the money generated in 2011 came from the state Department of Transportation, which pays inmates more than other agencies.
That's because the work, usually picking up litter on the side of the road, requires more DOC supervision, Corbett said.
Like at other agencies, the inmates' employment is largely seasonal, ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said.
He called it a "planned utilization of an asset.
"We do use them extensively on litter pickup, and if we contracted that out, there would be a much higher cost than we see with corrections," he said.
Some area agencies that paid for Department of Corrections labor in fiscal 2012:
City of Athens (Street and Sanitation): $28,574
Morgan County (Landfill): $27,281
City of Red Bay: $20,904
Decatur City Schools: $2,951
Joe Wheeler State Park: $1,248
Source: Department of Corrections