Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Inmates' labors aid area groups

by on January 16, 2014 11:00 AM

At the Church of the Good Shepherd in Kent, stripping and waxing the church hall floor in preparation for the annual Lenten fish fries is as much a tradition as the dinners themselves.

But because the church's parishioners are not getting any younger, it was a task they couldn’t do themselves anymore.

So now, they leave it to inmates at SCI Pine Grove.

"They do excellent work," said Carol Pike, an administrative assistant at the church. "It looks really good when they're done.”

The assistance of the inmates is possible through the state prison's Community Works Program, which sends inmates, under supervision, out beyond the prison walls to perform any number of jobs in the community.

[PHOTO: Inmates at SCI Pine Grove performed 9,528 man-hours of work in 2013. (Submitted photo)]

They've cleaned churches, picked up litter, painted animal shelters, mowed lawns and trimmed trees at local ball fields. And at the Indiana County Community Action Program's food bank, they routinely pack boxes of groceries and carry them to waiting cars.

The program isn't unique to Pine Grove; other state prisons offer the program to their inmates. The Department Corrections established the program in 1995; Pine Grove set its up 2003.

The prison doesn't actively market the existence of the program to the community, and it doesn't necessarily need to.

"We’re never shy of work, even in the winter," said Jim Novak, who along with another corrections officer, Don Lidwell, oversee the program.

In fiscal 2013, inmates performed 9,528 man-hours worth of work. In the year prior, they performed 7,798 hours worth of work. And in 2011, they provided 8,204 of labor.

The prison pays participating inmates 51 cents per hour for their labor, which, in 2013 would have added up to a total payroll of $4,859.

It's quite a bargain for taxpayers. At minimum wage, that same amount of time would have cost $69,078 in fiscal 2013.

And for some organizations, such as ICCAP, the inmates are a key part of the operation.

Jesse Miller, ICCAP's food bank director, pointed out that if it wasn't for the inmates, the food bank's Supplemental Commodity Food Program probably would have been ended.

That program assists seniors by providing them with groceries. It's labor intensive, as the seniors are given 40 or more pounds of food at one time. That food needs to be bagged, packed and carried to vehicles.

Miller said the program used to rely on community volunteers, but ICCAP was having trouble finding enough people to provide the labor necessary to keep it going. ICAAP was on the verge of shutting the program down, he said, when it turned to the prison for help.

"We couldn't do it without them," Miller said.

He added that they've never had a problem with any of the inmates.

Judy Smith, the prison's assistant to the superintendent, said the purpose of the program is to help prisoners winding down their incarceration to begin to reintegrate into society and to give back a little something to the community.

Novak, who has supervised Pine Grove's program since its inception, said inmates are receptive to it.

For them, he said, "It feels like they're going to work and being productive."

The program is open to prisoners who have four years or less remaining until they reach the minimum end of their sentence. Those who have committed a capital crime or are serving a life sentence are prohibited from taking part in the program, as are those who have been convicted of homicide, sex offenses and kidnapping. Escapees are also barred.

Pike, too, said Church of the Good Shepherd has never had a problem and added that the inmates provide an amazing amount of help.

"It's a very good program," she said.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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