Inmate Labor Beautifies, Saves Money for Fairfax

by Andrea Ceisler, Fairfax County Sheriff's Office

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, April 2006)

Community Labor Force offenders and volunteers plant trees“I have nothing but praise for this program,” says Ned Foster about the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office Community Labor Force section. Foster is the founder and president of Friends of Little Rocky Run (FLRR), a group of conservation-minded volunteers that conduct stream improvement and awareness activities. FLRR has partnered with the Sheriff's Office to help keep the Little Rocky Run stream valley clean.

The Sheriff’s Office Community Labor Force (CLF) programs provide an innovative approach to incarceration and work release. Labor crews, consisting of well-screened offenders, provide necessary services to the county that include countywide litter pickup, graffiti removal, blight abatement, bus stop maintenance, and overall beautification.

“It’s a win-win situation for the county,” says Deputy Sheriff First Lieutenant Tyler Corey who supervises the CLF. “Taxpayers save money on services that otherwise would be contracted out, and offender participants have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work and develop employable skills.” Program participants also may earn Judicial Good Time for their efforts, thereby reducing the incarceration period and the cost of incarceration to the county, Corey added.

Rose Purple, Chair of the Pine Ridge Park Association in Mason District, has used the CLF for nine years and says, “We absolutely could not do what we do at Pine Ridge or at other parks, without this program. Regular volunteers come and go, but the CLF is consistent, and the Sheriff’s Office always goes out of its way to accommodate our needs,” she says.

At least two to three times per year—and last year five times—the CLF has planted trees, hauled mulch, removed invasive plants, and picked up litter at Pine Ridge Park in Annandale. “The crew works with our other volunteers and are treated as regular members of our group,” said Purple. “When you see them working, you cannot tell the crew members from the regular volunteers.”

Purple credits the program with being rehabilitative. “The labor force crews are very proud of what they accomplish. Some of the people ask to be on our events every time we have them. They tell me they are going to come back on their own to check on the projects at the park.”

The CLF undertook a long-term project at Bailey’s Elementary School, helping to install an outdoor learning center of native plants in a courtyard where weeds once ruled. Elisabeth Freed, a Bailey’s parent, sought help from the Sheriff’s Office because of difficulties recruiting parents. “Almost 80% of our school families are immigrants, so the language barrier has been a huge hurdle for us in seeking volunteers. Also, many of the parents work on weekends, which is when we work on the courtyard. Lt. Corey’s crew was invaluable, supplying the brawn that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Freed says the CLF dug trenches to lay bricks for a walkway, hauled and spread gravel, moved tons of rocks, and dug holes for trees and a pond. “The outcome,” she says, “is fabulous.”

The county recently recognized Lt. Corey for his work in expanding the duties of the Community Labor Force. Corey envisioned using the inmate labor pool as a cost cutting tool for the county. First, he confronted the problem of excess trash and graffiti at county bus stops and shelters. Today the CLF services over 250 bus stops and shelters—removing approximately 680 pounds of trash per day—with an estimated taxpayer savings of $160,000 per year. The CLF also removes graffiti from the shelters and performs general maintenance when needed.

Early this year, Corey convinced the county that inmates could perform landscaping work in a more cost-effective manner than private contractors. He negotiated the release of one-third of the county’s landscape contracts to the Community Labor Force. This initiative has saved the county over $100,000 in its first year.

Any locality—including homeowner associations and “Friends of” groups—can contact the CLF about a project. If the Sheriff’s Office deems that the project meets strict criteria, as outlined in the Virginia Code, then a member of the Board of Supervisors must submit a written request to the court to allow inmates to address the community’s revitalization needs. The CLF cannot go on private property without such a court order in place. (Offenders who are doing weekend community service but who are not inmates may go on private property without a court order.)

“The work CLF does is subtle,” says Foster. “You wouldn’t know that they were doing it unless they stopped doing it. The inmates and deputies are a pleasure to work with and provide a huge benefit to our community.” Foster noted that the deputies are very concerned about the welfare of the inmates. “They never put the inmates in harm’s way. Their safety is always in the forefront.”

Rose Purple echoes Foster’s remarks. “We’ve had a phenomenal experience with the Community Labor Force.”

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