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Inmate labor program approved

Suffolk will once again be able to use the free services of Western Tidewater Regional Jail inmates to cut grass and perform other necessary tasks following City Council’s approval Wednesday of a new agreement.

City Manager Patrick Roberts suspended the program earlier this year over liability concerns, such as who would pay the bill if an inmate got hurt while working for a locality.

The agreement approved Wednesday takes care of that issue and outlines other standards for the program.

“I’m pleased they were able to reinstitute the inmate labor program,” Councilman Mike Duman, who is also a member of the jail authority, said Thursday. “It allows the city of Suffolk to take advantage of 8,000 to 10,000 hours annually of free labor. It truly is a win-win for all involved, including the inmates.”

The city has used inmate labor since the jail was formed. They usually take care of picking up litter on the city’s minor roadways and cleaning kennels at the animal care center. Inmates must meet several criteria and go through a screening process before being allowed to participate in the program.

Because the jail is responsible for all medical costs for its inmates, and Suffolk pays about 71 percent of jail costs based on the percentage of inmates there that come from Suffolk, Suffolk could have wound up paying the majority of costs if an inmate was hurt working for another jurisdiction.

But that has changed under the new agreement. The agreement states the city will be responsible for up to $25,000 or the insurance coverage in effect at the time, whichever is greater, in the event an inmate is injured while working for Suffolk.

Duman said Isle of Wight County and Franklin, the two other localities that participate in the jail, would have to abide by the same agreement if they chose to use inmate labor.

“In today’s day and age, it is important everyone has a clear understanding of their responsibilities,” Duman said. “Some of the liability will be shifted to the locality that is actually using the inmate labor at that time. From that standpoint, it’s very equitable.”

“We are excited that the program will be up and running again,” jail Superintendent William C. Smith stated in an email. “We believe it provides a benefit to all parties involved.”

As part of the agreement, the city agreed to a variety of conditions, including providing constant supervision and not telling family members or friends of inmates where an inmate will be working at a particular time.

Inmates participating in the program will not be allowed to contact other people while outside the jail, have access to computers, bring food or drinks back to the jail or receive money, cigarettes or drugs, among other conditions.