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Suffolk suspends inmate labor

Suffolk recently ceased using the labor of inmates from Western Tidewater Regional Jail because of liability concerns but city officials hope to begin using the inmates again soon, once details are ironed out.

The city has used inmate labor since the jail was formed, City Manager Patrick Roberts said this week. Inmates perform tasks like cleaning kennels at the animal care center and picking up litter on less heavily traveled roads — the city contracts with a company to pick up litter on major roadways.

There have been no incidents in the program, Roberts said, but during a budget discussion, questions arose about who would pay for medical care if an inmate suffered an illness or injury related to working for a locality.

“I temporarily suspended the use of inmate labor until we got these issues resolved,” Roberts said.

Western Tidewater Regional Jail Superintendent William Smith said inmates must have fewer than 18 months to serve in the facility and be classified as minimum-custody inmates to participate in the work-release program, which also qualifies them for the labor program for localities.

A screening process looks at their criminal history and track record as an inmate, Smith said. Usually, the inmate works in the jail for a month or so.

“If they’re successful and don’t have problems, we may allow them to go into the workforce program,” he said.

During the 12 months ending on Feb. 16 of this year, inmates had worked more than 7,600 hours for Suffolk, Smith said. Isle of Wight County also uses inmate labor, but Franklin, the third participating locality in the regional jail, does not.

The three localities pay all costs related to the jail, according to the percentage of inmates from each locality housed there. Suffolk’s current percentage is 71 percent, said Councilman Mike Duman, who is a member of the jail board.

“Hypothetically, if someone was hurt in Isle of Wight, and the bill was $10,000, Suffolk would be paying $7,100 for something that happened in Isle of Wight,” Duman said this week.

The jail is required to pay for all medical care for inmates, even if they had insurance when they came into the facility. They would not qualify for workman’s compensation when working for a locality, because they are not employees.

Duman said he is glad the matter is being addressed.

“It’s just a matter of being proactive and doing something before it becomes a problem,” he said. “Just like the city, just like the schools, we have risk management. We have a concern over ever-increasing medical expenses.”

Roberts said he, the jail board, the city attorney and others are working on a memorandum of understanding to address the issue. The city may have to purchase additional insurance, which should be a negligible cost, he said.

In the meantime, the city’s regular employees in public works and animal control are completing the tasks usually done by inmates, Roberts said.

“It’s just been a heavier workload shared by city staff,” he said.

Roberts said he aims to have the program back operational as soon as possible.

“It’s a significant cost savings for the city,” he said. “I’m looking forward to putting the inmates back to work.”