State Decision On Trusties Gives Jails A Labor Crisis Prisoners Were Used To Perform Wide Variety Of County Chores
Kootenai County Jail officials are scrambling.
There are hundreds of meals to be served, tons of clothes to be washed, floors to be scrubbed and cars to be repaired.
And by next week, the people who usually do all that work will be gone. They’ll be back in prison where they came from.
Until last week, several counties throughout Idaho depended heavily on prison inmates known as trusties to keep up daily operations not only of the jails but also of the counties themselves.
Kootenai County was top among them. It had almost half of the state’s 27 trusties doing everything from serving jail inmates their food to changing the oil in county cars.
That ended last week. Idaho Department of Corrections Director Jim Spalding decided to send all of the trusties back to prison after it was discovered that a man convicted of second-degree murder was allowed to walk around Shoshone County with minimal security.
The decision came as more than just a disappointment to county officials around Idaho.
“It is a devastation to us,” said Kootenai County Sheriff’s Lt. Skip Rapp. Three of the five county shop workers were trusties. Now that they are being shipped back to prison, there are only two mechanics to care for 140 county vehicles, Rapp said.
Cars needing repair already are backing up, janitorial work is falling behind inside the jail and deputies are shoveling sidewalks that used to be cleaned by prisoners.
Officials worry the Corrections Department may be overreacting and overlooking the benefits of the trusty program.
In Payette County, Sheriff Robert Barowsky figures it’s going to cost taxpayers between $15,000 and $18,000 to replace the jail’s trusty cook. “I was just a little shocked,” he said Wednesday. “If there was a problem I was hoping the state would work out the conflicts … rather than shut down a very successful program.”
Corrections officials are standing firm. “The bottom line is, a state-sentenced prisoner is ultimately the responsibility of the state,” said Ann Thompson, assistant to the director. “If a state-sentenced prisoner escapes while on a work detail or causes harm to someone … the liability rests with the state.”
When the program came to an end last week, the Kootenai County Jail had 12 trusties - more than any other county in the state.
The jail began using the program nine years ago, said Lt. Sam Grubbs. The prison inmates made good workers, he said, because they could be trained and expected to stay for the long term.
Trusties were selected from the prison population in Boise and had to be classified as no higher than minimum security. They served in seven counties.
A trusty is considered a privileged position among inmates. “I think they would rather be doing something other than sitting in a cell doing nothing,” said Sgt. Gene Fish at the Clearwater County Jail. His jail depended on two trusties to cook for the inmates, paint and maintain the building.
Corrections officials worry the trusty program appears to go soft on criminals convicted of some of the most heinous crimes in the state. Several convicted murderers have been trusties. All but two of Kootenai County’s recent trusties were sex offenders.
But several jailers said the program also benefited county taxpayers.
Grubbs estimates their work saved Kootenai County $184,000 in labor costs during 1995.
Six of Kootenai County’s trusties already have been moved. Grubbs said the rest will be gone by next week.
The county shop has been the hardest hit so far. During January, trusties changed the oil on 38 cars, did seven tuneups, five brake jobs and 24 tire changes, Rapp said.
The shop will need to hire at least one more mechanic to make up for the loss, Rapp said. It will cost at least $18,500 a year.
Kootenai County is trying to form a labor pool from the local inmates in the jail, Grubbs said. Thirty-four inmates already have asked to be part of the program.
But of those, officials have found only four who would be suitable trusties based on their crimes and their behavior in jail, Grubbs said. Those chosen are serving time for grand theft, burglary, driving without a license and eluding police officers.
Grubbs said he worries about letting local residents outside of the jail to work. People who know them might be more likely to stop by and drop off contraband.
As it is, the ones who have been chosen will be around no longer than four months before they go free and have to be replaced, he said.
But there is hope. A similar program has been successful in places like Bannock County, where 20 local jail inmates serve in a labor program. The jail gives the inmates up to five days off their sentence for every month they work, said Sgt. Ellie Peterson.
“They pick it up pretty fast,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Idaho’s inmate trusties