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Union Protest Halts Use Of Jail Labor City Defends Program, Says No Jobs Lost To Inmates

The use of convicts for maintenance work at Spokane’s Riverfront Park stopped when the city’s largest union raised a stink.

What city officials describe as an incredible bargain, union leaders call a possible violation of city personnel policies that must end.

“The proposed work contract with the Airway Heights Correction Center is the contracting out of classified work,” said Randy Withrow, the union’s staff representative, in a July 5 letter to the Parks Department.

Assistant City Manager Bill Pupo said that’s just not the case.

“Our intent is not to replace the work force with inmates,” Pupo said. “It’s to do things we wouldn’t normally be able to do in a timely way. It’s to do stuff that doesn’t get done.”

Six inmates worked two weeks in late June for $1 an hour each - plus $13.53 per hour for one corrections officer. They did work park staff doesn’t have time or money to do, such as trim trees and clean the river bank.

For now, the inmates aren’t working in Riverfront Park.

“We haven’t given up,” Pupo said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Pupo, joined by Parks Department officials, plans to discuss the issue with union officials today.

Withrow said he’s not exactly sure what inmates are supposed to do, and until he is, they shouldn’t work in the park.

“We want to know, is this supplanting or supplementing the work force?” Withrow said. “There’s a difference.”

The city’s recent money problems mean cutbacks in summer seasonal employees who are covered by the union contract, Withrow said.

“So, rather than provide summer job opportunities for college students and teenagers, that’s out,” he said. “We’re letting inmates do it instead.”

Hiring the inmates saves taxpayer money, said Mike Stone of the Parks Department. A temporary-seasonal employee would run about $6 an hour. A regular union employee would go between $9 to $13 a hour.

Stone said that higher cost is moot because the work wouldn’t be done if not for inmates.

Park board member Steve Clark said the debate over the inmates began several months ago when a Riverfront Park employee told the board about the success of Airway Heights’ “work crew” program.

“He told us there were so many things we’re not able to do because we don’t have the staff or the money,” Clark said.

“We could do this within our budget.”

Rick Hewson, Airway Heights public information officer, said convicts who serve on work crews must be within three years of release.

While their past crimes run the gamut, they’ve progressed to the prison’s minimum security building.

Those prisoners in minimum security are closely screened before being allowed on a work crew.

Once out, a guard constantly monitors the inmates, who wear tan jackets and slacks topped with bright orange baseball caps.

About 800 convicts have taken part in the three-year-old program, and only 20 have walked away, Hewson said.

Nineteen of those were returned and one remains missing.

“No one has ever done anything violent,” Hewson said.

Airway Heights prisoners now work for Eastern State Hospital, the state Department of Natural Resources and the city of Cheney, Hewson said.

Unlike the controversial proposal from county commissioner Phil Harris to bring back chain gangs, these convicts aren’t shackled under armed guard.

These are prisoners nearing release into normal life, some of whom haven’t been out in the world for nearly 20 years, Hewson said.

“By going out and just driving downtown, it makes them aware of what’s going on,” he said.

The money prisoners earn is held in a bank account until their release, Hewson said.

Clark said the program blends conservative and liberal philosophies.

For conservatives, he said, it “puts inmates to some constructive use.”

For liberals, it gives inmates “an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.”

“It seemed to be such a positive thing,” Clark said.

“Then we get notice from the union with some misguided notion about protecting jobs.

“There is no job here that needs to be protected, and it’s a socially worthwhile program.”

, DataTimes

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