Barnstable County Prison Labor

By Elizabeth White

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Most of us see them by the highway picking up trash in orange jump suits. They're inmates from the Barnstable County Jail out on community service work crews. In addition to keeping the highways clean, inmates perform a range of community services, from painting to carpentry to landscaping.

On a windy November day a six-man work crew from the Barnstable County jail repairs the dock at Monument beach in Bourne. The dock was destroyed last winter in the freak storm of December 9th, whose tidal surge carried the rotting planks up onto the beach.

22 year old Lee Kelly hammers in a new cross brace to hold the pilings upright. Kelly's serving one year for breaking and entering. As he works at the end of the dock, under the open sky, Kelly says he's grateful for any chance to get out of the jail.

Lee Kelly: "Oh, it's boring. When you're in there's nothing to do. Days drag. A day feels like a week to me in there. But when you're out here, weeks fly by like nothing."

Sergeant Joe Brait, who supervises the community service crews, keeps an eye on the inmates from inside a nearby maintenance building. Brait worked in construction for over thirty years before joining the Sheriff's Office. He likes his job because he's able to teach the inmates valuable works skills.

Sergeant Joe Brait: "I've had quite a few younger kids that have not been shown by anybody any trade. I've got two of them on my crew now, that everyday they thank me for showing how to paint, how to bang a nail, how to read a ruler. And they work really hard for me. I don't give him anything in return, except a chance to get out of the jail - that's what they look forward to."

And the towns look forward to the free labor. Last year, according to Dave Neal with the Sheriff's office, the inmates performed 25,000 hours of free labor for the municipalities and non-profits of Cape Cod.

Dave Neal: "And you multiply that out times the average laborer making $20 bucks an hour, and you're saving the communities a tremendous amount of money."

Towns have to buy all the materials and provide lunch for the inmates, but otherwise the labor comes free of charge. A savings of roughly $500,000 thousand dollars a year. Neal says the program is voluntary, but only a small percentage of prisoners are eligible to work outside the jail.

Dave Neal: "All these inmates have been evaluated and deemed to be compliant, that is, they do exactly as they're told. Sheriff Cummings does not allow any of the inmates to work outside who have a violent background. Most of them are in for their third or fourth DUI or bad check passing, or something like that."

Inmate Brian Patterson for example is serving two and a half years for a repeat drunk driving offense. Patterson's been on Sergeant Brait's work crew for several months now. He says working on the outside relieves stress and breaks the tedium of prison life.

Brian Patterson: "That's why I think it's good to be working, the program, you don't have idle time, you know what I mean, to really think about other things. And I know in other spots in the jail, and you're sitting there and pondering over things where that's what sometime stuff happens. You get more you know angry, your temper, you lose your temper, because you're not as busy. And the best thing is to stay busy cause just hanging around is no way to live in there. You just don't feel like a person because you're not accomplishing anything."

Patterson says his favorite type of work is new construction.

Brian Patterson: "And it's just because, you know, at the end of the day you can see what you've done. You know, if you were building something, we start from scratch and all of a sudden we start to, you know, make something. Gives you a satisfaction at the end of the day to see that we've completed something and there's something to show for it. You know I can come back down here maybe next summer and I can say to friends that I helped build this dock, I did something beneficial while I was incarcerated."

Back on the dock Bourne resident Jay Redman has come down to check out the progress. Redman lives just up the street; he's grateful the dock's finally getting fixed.

Jay Redman: "This cross bracing will make it hold up through the winter. With the ice and everything, keep everything from moving, keep it all tight. And they've been here all week doing an outstanding job. It's hard work."

It is hard work, say the inmates. But often the most difficult part of the day is returning to their cells.

Broadcast December 14, 2006

Elizabeth White reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.