Work, No Release | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Work, No Release

Under legislation introduced in late August, inmates at the Allegheny County Jail may soon be out maintaining county parks and roads. But while supporters of the bill assure it won't revive chain gangs, critics aren't so sure.

The bill, authored by Allegheny County Councilor Vince Gastgeb (R-Bethel Park), would "require every able-bodied male prisoner" convicted of a non-violent crime "to perform eight hours of manual labor each day of his imprisonment."

Noting that budgetary constraints have made it difficult to provide upkeep for county facilities, the legislation asserts that employing inmates "will both benefit the inmates themselves and the County's residents."

"We're not talking about chain gangs and guards with shotguns," says County Councilor Charles Martoni (D-Swissvale), a co-sponsor of the bill. "This would be good for prisoners."

For that to be true, skeptics say, legislators need to strike out language mandating employment for little or no pay, and focus the bill on job training and rehabilitation.

Work programs "should be voluntary and focused on job skills to help [inmates] lead a law-abiding life" once they leave the jail, says Amy Fettig, staff council for the National Prison Project, an initiative of the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to county spokesperson Megan Dardanell, some 500 of the facility's 2,700 inmates are serving prison terms; the remaining inmates being held pending trial are exempt from the bill's requirements. Of the 500 who have been convicted, Dardanell estimates that roughly 100 are serving time for non-violent offenses, and are thus eligible for the work program.

Dardanell says County Executive Dan Onorato thinks the bill "is an interesting idea," especially if it helps prisoners get employment experience. But "he would not support a job program meant as punishment," she adds.

Martoni agrees that he doesn't want prisoners "forced into" the employment program: "I can't see it being mandatory."

But the bill "sounds pretty mandatory to me," says Fettig. "Forcing people to work for cents on the dollar is going to be counterproductive."

That's assuming prisoners employed in the program would be paid at all. As the legislation currently reads, the program "shall also provide for payment of any inmates employed outside the Jail ... at a rate at least equal to the median rate paid to inmates employed within the Jail." But Dardanell says that prisoners who work inside the jail -- washing dishes in the cafeteria, for instance -- aren't paid.

At other correctional facilities, inmates typically earn between 19 and 40 cents an hour, says Hidenori Yamatani, associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work. Yamatani says the county jail should avoid using that pay scale as a model. The jail, he says, should have "strictly a voluntary work force, with signed consent forms, salient physical health exams, fair wage offer and health benefits," he wrote City Paper in an e-mail.

"They're not going to make fair wages," counters Martoni. "They're prisoners."

Martoni says the program isn't about putting money in prisoners' pockets; it's about training them for employment when they leave the jail.

"I'd like an educational component to this, not just free of low-cost labor," he says. "People have to learn how to work again."

The five-page legislation does not currently include any provisions regarding job training. But Gastgeb's bill is only in its early stages. It has been referred to council's Public Safety Committee for debate, and the legislation notes that details concerning safety and inmate transportation need to be worked out with the jail's warden, Ramon Rustin. (Neither Gastgeb nor Rustin returned phone calls for comment.) The bill also states that labor unions must be consulted before council acts on the legislation to make sure inmates won't be taking jobs from the county's union workforce.

In any case, the program should "include meaningful training content that prisoners can use after their release," Yamatani says. It should also include "an official certificate of job experience so they can use it ... to look for employment."

In the absence of wages, Fettig and Yamatani agree, the legislation should offer inmates the opportunity to earn "good time," reductions in prison sentences for participating in the program.

"We have to avoid going backward in how we view our prisoners," Yamatani continues. "Not so long ago, the prisoners were used as 'slaves,' not as [a] workforce with dignity and human rights. ... Because our history is filled with such violations, I have strong reservations about this proposal."