Sheriff defends work release program, how it helps

Published 10:01 am Friday, June 23, 2023

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During the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, the county discussed whether the work release program was worth keeping as part of a larger discussion on a request by Sheriff James Woodruff for increased deputy pay.

The sheriff said the raises are needed to help prevent TCSO from losing employees to other law enforcement agencies, particularly to LaGrange, which just increased their starting pay to $60,000. TCSO currently pays its new deputies $42,000.

Woodruff said he needs increased pay for his deputies to compete but closing work release is not the way to get the funds.

The work release program started about 20 years ago, according to Woodruff. It was originally part of the prison system back when the county ran the correctional institute.

“It was a great idea and still is a great idea,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff said before work release, when someone with a good job does something foolish and gets convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to months in jail, the only choice was to go to the jail and do the time.

“If you are sentenced to 12 months, with good behavior, you could get out in six months, but nobody is going to hold your job for six months. So, somebody came up with the idea for work release,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff explained that low-level offenders in the program can leave jail to work while serving out their sentences.

“You get to keep your job that you’ve had for 20 years, and your employer gets to keep a good employee that made a bad mistake. You’re also getting to send money home to help your wife and kids, pay the light bill and buy groceries, because they’re the ones that really suffer — the kids and the wife,” Woodruff said.

Why keep work release?

Woodruff said ending the program may cost the county money. The county is not responsible for the medical care of work-release inmates, which has been a rising cost for the jail.

“If you’re an inmate down here, we’re responsible for your medical care. If you’re on work release, you’re responsible for your own medical care. So that’s 24 people that we have up there right now as of yesterday, that we don’t have to worry about their medical care,” Woodruff said.

Medical care for inmates is one of the biggest expenses for the jail, having recently jumped from $1 million to $1.5 million.

Woodruff said the county also makes $165 per week from each inmate in work release fees.

“If we shut it down, you’ve got 24 people that would automatically lose their job. You’ve got 24 families that would automatically start suffering. Troup County wouldn’t make any money and you’d still have the inmates,” Woodruff said.

The sheriff explained that if work release were to end, the county would still have to house the inmates.

“As of yesterday, our inmate population was about 575. If I move those 24, down here, we’re almost at 600 inmates. Six hundred is capacity,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff said the only cost savings he could see would be from fully closing the former correctional institute building, but they currently use it for overflow and to segregate inmates. He said inmate work crews are also housed in a separate area of the building to prevent inmates from sneaking contraband into general populations.

The work crew inmates help with roadside cleanup by picking up roadkill and illegal dump sites. They also clean up for events such as the Fourth of July fireworks at Pyne Road Park. Those inmates would need to go back to the jail if the CI building were to fully close, Woodruff said.

“So now we would have people sleeping on the floor, and you’re talking about federal lawsuits and protests for inhumane treatment,” Woodruff said.

The CI also allows for overflow for events like COVID, Woodruff said.

Woodruff said the Public Defender’s office currently uses the front portion of the building.

“So, you’re still going to have that air conditioning bill, that electric bill, that water bill, so they’re still going to need power and expenses up there,” Woodruff said.

“I don’t see where there would be any savings by closing work release,” Woodruff said. “I’d say that we would lose money.”

How work release works

Woodruff said work-release inmates live in a dorm and sleep in bunkbeds much like regular inmates, the only difference is there isn’t a locked gate. The door typically remains open because the inmates work all sorts of hours. You’ll typically find some inmates using the dorm to sleep at any hour of the day. They also wash their own work clothes right outside the dorm.

“Why should we lock them in there because they get to leave and come back on their own?” Woodruff said.

“With work release, you leave our facility, you go straight to your job, and you come straight back. You can’t go by your girlfriend’s house. You can’t go by Walmart shopping. You can’t go to the movies. You go from work release to work and back to work release.”

Work-release inmates are frequently drug and alcohol tested and searched every time they return from work. Woodruff noted that on rare occasions inmates don’t return, so deputies will have to find them. If work-release inmates ever fail to return to jail after work, they are banned from the program, he said.

Woodruff said inmates are approved for work release on a case-by-case basis. Someone in jail for aggravated assault or another violent offense isn’t going to be allowed to participate, but someone in jail for a non-violent misdemeanor likely would.

When the program first started, only those who already had a job could participate but Woodruff said he changed it to allow inmates seven days to find a job.

“As many jobs as there are in Troup County, if you can’t find a job in seven days, you’re not looking hard enough or you’re holding out for a management position or something because there are jobs to be had,” Woodruff said.