When Sheriff Steve Draper of Martinsville, Va., took office in 1994, the department of public works was in charge of the city farm. When the farm came under the purview of the sheriff’s office, Draper decided he wanted to change how the jail operated and try to run it more like a business.
The farm had previously had cattle and produced a large vegetable crop, but it was too difficult to keep up under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules and requirements. It then focused on growing enough food and vegetables to simply feed inmates at the jail. However, according to Draper, groundhogs soon put the farm out of business. Unable to return it to its former glory, Draper focused on a more business-like approach to running the jail and farm. Inmates then got started doing odd jobs around the city in 1996, though they continue to grow some vegetables.
They began cleaning up the exterior of city buildings and then moved on to painting and moving items for both the city and local nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits especially expressed a need for grass mowing. As time went on, more requests would come in from the city and nonprofit organizations. Eventually, the program became too big, and it had to be restructured, splitting inmates between multiple crews. These crews work on a variety of projects that would typically be bid out to contractors.
Inmates at the jail write in and request to work at the farm. With the jail’s classification system, inmates are properly separated to prevent as many problems as possible. While many who work at the farm do have felony records, they are minimum security, nonviolent offenders. This means they cannot have any violent convictions on their record.
“We don’t have to pick them to work; they want to work,” Draper emphasized, and he enjoys watching them grow as they learn trades and skills they can use. Participating inmates receive on-the-job training and utilize their own work histories in their jobs. Depending on the department they assist with, they may learn how to use specific equipment, which can be an invaluable skill.
Most inmates report to their work crews Monday through Friday each week, just like with a normal job. They also receive $2 a day for their work, which can go toward their commissary. The city gets the benefit of skilled laborers for a greatly reduced fee. Following their release, some inmates have even gotten jobs using these skill sets and trades.
Some major work assignments include grounds maintenance for city buildings and nonprofits, from mowing and leaf removal to tree cutting and brush maintenance. Inmates can work with the refuse department on a garbage truck, removing bulk household items from curbsides or assist with street maintenance and removing roadside garbage.
Inmates also help a wood fuel assistance program. If a tree is down on public property, they will split the tree and then stack the firewood. Nonprofit organizations will then hand out pieces of paper for those who need assistance. When the individual brings their slip of paper, inmates will load them up with free firewood.
In 2019-2020, there were multiple larger projects completed. At Hooker Field, inmates completed a remodel of the home team locker room, including repairing broken lockers and plumbing, replacing bathroom tile and painting. Old ceiling and carpet were removed, with a new ceiling and rubber flooring being installed. Inmates participated in demolishing the old irrigation pump house at the field and finishing it with a newly built truss roof. Crews also repaired various other building and structures at Hooker Field, which entailed some painting and repairs to a second locker room in addition to plumbing, flooring and lighting projects.
The city shop received some major remodeling, too, thanks to the inmate crews. The garage door on the bay was removed, and the bay itself was transformed into an office area for the public works department. This included installing ceiling, wiring and lighting, as well as finishing the exterior.
Various repair, remodel and installation jobs were completed at various office buildings. Six condemned houses were boarded up with assistance from the crews. Door closure devices were installed on the main doors at the juvenile probation office. Additionally, inmates installed COVID guards at all public buildings at Hooker Field.
When it comes to the city, the inmate labor program saves it hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2019-2020, it is estimated the city saved $464,746.75 based on minimum wage and the number of labor hours provided by inmates. However, much of the skilled labor provided by the inmates is worth more than minimum wage, causing the city to believe they have saved more like $1.2 million using the inmate labor program.
Mayor Kathy Lawson expressed her gratitude for the inmates and this program: “We in the city of Martinsville are very fortunate to have a ‘think out of the box’ sheriff’s office who realized years ago that a certain population of our inmates could be utilized for services to our community. These men enjoy being given the opportunity to work outside of the prison walls in a variety of ways. Their contribution to our city cannot be measured merely by dollars but also by the opportunity for some to learn a new skill while providing service to the community. While many of the jobs these men are performing save the city thousands, they also help some of our local nonprofits.”