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October 27, 2009 -- MSNBC (US)

The Elkhart Project:

Recession Raises The Bar On Inmate Work Release

By Kari Huus,

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


In better times, even those behind bars were better off.

When the local RV industry was booming, low-level criminal offenders in the Elkhart County Jail were routinely cycled through the work release program. Eligible inmates would sign out for work then return to the minimum security detention facility in Goshen after their shifts. With good behavior, they could earn greater freedoms and, eventually, be released to home detention, opening up beds in the facility for other inmates.

But with 15 percent unemployment in the county, movement through the facility has slowed to a crawl. Only about 50 percent of the inmates in the 327-bed detention facility are working, compared to 85 percent in normal times, according to Elkhart County Sheriff Mike Books. At the recession's peak, the number of employed in the facility was even lower -- only 38 percent had jobs.

"It's frustrating," said Books, who is also chairman of the Community Corrections Advisory Board. "It slows the flow back into society."

Frustrating is too kind a word for it if you ask Antinio Long, 34. Like many of the offenders here, Long was arrested on charges related to back child support in April, and transferred to the work release program from the jail shortly thereafter.

Only in mid-October -- after more than five months of job hunting during his allotted half day per week -- did Long finally land a full-time position working at McDowell Enterprises, which makes copper and brass fittings. Unfortunately, the $9 an hour is less than he was earning at a local sanitation company before his arrest, he said.

Eventually, Long will be able to generate money to pay back child support for his three girls and a boy -- ages 4 to 11.

But first, he must pay the county what he owes for supervision at the work release facility -- a privilege for which inmates like Long are charged $84 a week. Long said he has an outstanding bill of $1,009, and he will continue to pay what he called "rent" as long as he remains here.

"This program is really just a way for (the county) to make money," Long complained as he waited for his ride to work in the detention center parking lot. "It's legalized extortion."

Still, he's able to start digging himself out, which is more than others interviewed outside the facility were able to say.

Marcus Conner said he too had been looking for work "everywhere from fast food restaurants to factories" every week for five months -- with no results. Conner, also in on child support charges, rushed off to repeat the exercise when his ride arrived in the facility parking lot.

Kathy Pinkerton of Elkhart, waiting in her car for her husband, said she has been driving him around to look for work every week since his transfer here six months ago after serving two years in Indiana's Westville Prison.

"It's impossible," she said as the man she was waiting for climbed into the car for another round of job hunting.

Before driving away though, the man, who declined to give his name, said he has had several verifiable job offers in recent months, but has been told by corrections officers that he can't take those jobs because they don't provide adequate supervision.

"It's a joke," he growled. "There was more work in prison."

Also visit our "Prisoner Reentry" section.

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