Litter pickup by N. Carolina prisoners poised for scrap heap

Published 6:13 pm Monday, June 12, 2017

RALEIGH — A common sight for more than 100 years along North Carolina roads — prisoners picking up trash or clearing debris while guards keep close watch — could soon go the way of inmates smashing rocks with sledgehammers into gravel.

The proposed two-year state budget getting negotiated by Republicans this month is almost certain to stop sending $9.5 million to the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice to pay for litter crews and road squads. Both the House and Senate budget proposals included the shift, which means it’s unlikely to be removed from the final spending plan.

The work has long been considered a way for the public to know prisoners are contributing to the state and for behaving convicts to leave behind prison fences. The price would seem right too, since they make $1 a day and those payments don’t come from taxpayers.

But legislators who oversee transportation spending say that when the number of road miles cleaned up is considered, prisoners are more expensive than contractors, which the Department of Transportation increasingly uses. DOT would retain $9 million to expand contract litter pickup further.

A 2012 study by the Office of State Budget and Management determined a contractor cleaned 31 shoulder miles of road a day. Of four prison litter crews observed by budget analysts, the most any of the crew covered was 4.5 miles per day. The prison crews and squads are often comprised of eight prisoners and one unarmed or two armed correctional officers, depending on the security threat.

While all prisoners must stay within sight of the officers to reduce the threat of escape, contract workers can be dropped off at longer intervals. Prison staff shortages and security concerns also contribute to delays.

“It was too cost prohibitive,” said Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, a House transportation budget co-chairman. “I support getting the biggest bang for the buck.”

About 1,200 prisoners — 3 percent of the state’s prison population — would need to find other work or programs to occupy their time should the budget provisions become law, said Keith Acree, a state prison system spokesman.

The decision also would eliminate 183 correctional officer positions, essentially those that drive the crews and keep an eye on them. One budget-writer said those officers would have to find other duties.

“We’re not yet certain what would happen to prison road crews if this measure passed,” Acree wrote in an email. A separate program in which people sentenced to community service perform litter pickup would remain.

Inmates have been working on highways and roads since at least an 1887 law, according to the 2012 study. Some lawmakers are worried withholding the funds could mean prisoners are more likely to get into trouble back in prison.

There are “tangible benefits to using prisoners, and the public actually sees a benefit to it because they see inmates who we’re housing that are doing something productive,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and budget-writer on criminal justice matters.

The Department of Transportation has let dozens of litter and mowing contracts that help cover all of the more than 1,300 miles of North Carolina interstates and much of its primary highways. The $9 million should help cover all of the primary highways and increase secondary road cleanups, DOT spokesman Robert Broome said.

The House and Senate would keep open the door slightly for litter pickup by prisoners to continue. It would give the Division of Adult Correction the opportunity to match requirements of the most favorable bid received by DOT from a contractor to perform the work.

“They just need to bring their costs in line with what can get done in the private sector,” Torbett said. “We did not tell them no.”