The workers wear prison blues but no leg irons, and there isn’t a guard cradling a shotgun. Just Chad Whetzel, weed inspector.
This is Whitman County’s modern-day version of the chain gang, which on this day is whacking at the bane of Palouse farmers and ranchers: noxious weeds.
“That one’s mine, Dave,” Aaron Wells, forger, said to David Milne, sex offender, as they attacked a waist-high forest of Canada thistles near Klemgard Park.
While Spokane County weighs using jail inmates in chain gangs - with real hardware - Whitman County has used unshackled jail inmates to clean fire trucks, sweep courthouse floors and cut lawns for roughly a decade.
Officials say the inmates do work that otherwise might not get done. While it evokes comparisons to men in striped clothes pounding on piles of rocks, both officials and inmates say this is a break from doing time on the inside.
“It is sort of like a chain gang,” said Capt. Bob Ingalls, commander of the 42-bed county jail, “except it’s the positive side. Everyone benefits.”
Wells, in jail for probation violations, openly doubted whether his work would do much to fight the county’s weed problems.
“Basically we’re just spreading seed around,” he said as white tufts of seed flew from the plants.
Still, Wells, 22, said he would rather be outside and joked that work in the sun helps fight prison pallor.
“It’s better than jail, with all that artificial lighting,” he said.
Jail, said Milne, 20 and serving a six-month sentence for incest, “gets boring. You can only watch TV and read books and play cards for so many hours.”
The Whitman County crews are hardly as menacing as one might think. Their size ranges from two to six men and an occasional woman. All of them are considered trustees unlikely to escape or threaten public safety.
If they were to escape, said Wells and Milne, they would wait until they had better clothes and possibly some credit cards. Milne is already released during the day to work in a Pullman restaurant.
“We’re not violent,” said Wells. “We’re just kind of low on common sense.”
Convicted recently on two counts of forgery, Wells in 1991 was tried as a juvenile for using a radio to report a non-existent downed airplane, scrambling emergency workers across the county on a foggy night.
While the weed crew worked near the park’s juvenile fishing pond, about two dozen children roller skated and played on the park playground, oblivious to convicted criminals in their midst.
“I think it’s probably a good idea, as long as they’re supervised, so that they in a way pay back for causing problems,” said a mother who would not give her name.
As long as inmates clearly have a choice of working or not, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has no problem with such work either.
“King County has been doing it for years,” said Jerry Sheehan, the ACLU’s legislative director. “I thought everybody does it.”
Sheehan, however, did object to a proposal by Spokane County commissioners Phil Harris and Steve Hasson to revive shackled chain gangs.
“Its purpose is sheer individual humiliation,” Sheehan said, accusing the commissioners of political pandering.
Spokane County will have an advisory vote on the matter this fall.
As in Whitman County, Spokane inmates already do kitchen and laundry work. They also sort trash at the city incinerator.
In an irony not lost on the Whitman County inmates, work on the weed crew is called a privilege.
Some earn time off the community service portion of their sentences, and when they are paid, they earn $5 an hour in credit toward court costs or fines that indigent inmates generally can’t cover, said Ingalls.
In the past, inmates in the county’s 16-person work release unit have also been used to wash and wax fire trucks, clean courthouse windows and do other jobs for local schools, the street department, cemeteries and parks, he said.
The workers do no heavy lifting or tasks in which they might get hurt. Workers escape at the rate of “a couple a year,” and are usually apprehended, Ingalls said.
Neither Ingalls nor Janet Thomas, Whitman County weed coordinator, have fielded any complaints of the workers taking jobs from other citizens.
“I don’t know who would want to do this type of work,” said Thomas, who can’t find high school kids to weed her own yard at $7 an hour.
“It’s not pleasant.”
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