Doin’ time in Oak Harbor: Program puts prisoners to work
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
January 31, 2011 · Updated 8:14 AM
Inmates at Oak Harbor’s lock up now have a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The city launched a pilot program this month that will allow some inmates to spend their nights in the comfort of their own homes instead of behind bars.
The price for their freedom? Spending their daylight hours performing community service jobs around town.
“Eight hours is equal to 24 hours in the pokey,” City Administrator Paul Schmidt said.
The program was created to fill a gap left by the Washington Department of Corrections two years ago when it discontinued an inmate work program due to the rising cost of prisoner transport. The program worked by allowing municipalities to hire criminals for the bargain price of $1 dollar a day.
According to Schmidt, the deal worked out great for Oak Harbor as it spared the city from having to hire seasonal help to perform easy but necessary jobs, such as picking up litter, pulling weeds or washing city vehicles.
“Those menial tasks that otherwise don’t get done,” Schmidt said.
But the pilot program is also hoped to help fill city coffers. Oak Harbor is currently housing prisoners from Anacortes and the department of corrections for a nightly fee of $68 a bed. While migratory inmates would not be permitted to participate, every local prisoner that does will translate to one more available bed in the 12-bed facility.
“Instead of them cooling their heels in jail ... I’ll ask them if they want to work off their sentence and sell their bed to someone else,” Schmidt said.
Police Chief Rick Wallace said he supports alternative sentencing methods. Electronic monitoring, which allows criminals to serve their sentences at home through the use of an electronic device, has been utilized successfully for at least 10 years, he said.
However, Wallace said he doubts that the program will ever be so successful that it becomes a big money maker for the city. Even though another prisoner contract with San Juan County is being considered, the facility will never get so busy that its complement is dominated by out-of-town prisoners, he said.
“I really don’t think it’s going to turn into a jail-rental facility,” Wallace said.
According to Schmidt, the pilot program was created in partnership with the Island County District Court and only some of the prisoners at the Oak Harbor Jail will be able to participate. While state law only allows the facility to house inmates guilty of misdemeanor offenses, only those recommended by their probation officer will be allowed to join the work crews.
Most will have been convicted of low-level crimes, such as driving without a driver’s license, and have received sentences of one to three days, Schmidt said.
The program is completely voluntary — each prisoner can choose at any time to serve their sentence in jail instead — so supervision will be limited to a public works employee with no police or corrections officers present.
Public Works Director Cathy Rosen said she’s been told to expect among five to seven inmates a day, four days a week. She’s also been assured of a thorough screening process and said she has no reason to be concerned about staff safety.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Rosen said. “There are a lot of little things we don’t have time to get to.”
On a similar note to limited supervision, each inmate on the work crew will be dressed as a public employee might rather than in an easily recognizable prison-issue jumpsuit. And that’s by design, Schmidt said.
“We don’t want them to look like hardened criminals because they aren’t,” he said.
The point of the program is to give citizens who have made some poor decisions a chance to repay their debt to society in a more productive manner than sitting idle in jail, Schmidt said.
He also made it clear that this is a pilot program that is set to run until late April. Should the participation rate be low or prove financially not viable, it will be discontinued.Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.