Inmates build a Whidbey trail

"For Coupeville mayor Nancy Conard, one of the pros of hiring convicts to install a pedestrian path along Parker Road has to do with saving the town money.Mostly we thought it was financially smart and a good opportunity to stretch our budget, Conard said of the town's trail program.And in fact, at $1.10 per hour, per man, the exhausting pick and shovel work is a bargain.But for inmate Juan Johnston, serving the last months of a 10-year sentence for armed robbery, the opportunity to build the trail means something else.It's a morale booster just to be outside the gates and it builds your self-esteem, Johnston said during a break from swinging a pick. A lot of guys in prison kind of just rot away.Johnston is one of several honor inmates from Monroe Correctional Institute's Community Work Program who will be working along Parker Road during the next three weeks. All are nearing the end of their sentences and all are from the prison's minimum security unit. Their plan is to break ground, grade and install a mile-long crushed-rock path along the north side of Parker Road, from the Coupeville's town limits down to Leach Street.Having a separated walkway along Parker Road has been a fairly high priority for some time, said town planner Larry Cort.After the Front Street trail was built, people enjoyed it so much we thought, 'Why not do it along Parker Road too,' Cort said. A lot of people walk there but there's virtually no shoulder for them to walk on.But Cort said using Coupeville's four-man maintenance crew for the project would have been costly and taken months to complete, stealing time away from other projects and priorities around town.By contracting the inmates, Court said, the town can complete the trail sooner and at a much lower cost.Coupeville is one of a growing number of Washington towns to benefit from Monroe's two-year-old Community Work Program, corrections officer Ken Catron said.In all, five teams go out to places like Monroe and Des Moines, working on contracts that have included city parks, the Washington Department of Fish and Game, and the Centennial Trail, which runs from Snohomish through Lake Stevens.They've done everything from gardening for senior citizen halls to falling timber for the Northwest Railroad Museum in Snoqualmie Fall, Catron said.Though they are billed at $1.10 per hour, inmates receive about half that amount, said Ken Alston, who is finishing a five-year stretch for drugs.The DOC (Department of Corrections) takes 50 percent for the cost of incarceration and victim compensation plans and things like that, Alston said, adding that the DOC also deducts 10 percent to put in an inmate savings account.But money isn't what motivates him, Alston noted.This helps me with fitting back into society a little bit and doing something productive, he said. A lot of people might look down on it, but they don't realize we do pretty good work, cheaper than anyone else would do it.The inmates acknowledge there will always be residents who fear or suspect them while they work in neighborhoods. But they say the last thing they want to do is risk more time in prison. Most of us out here working have pretty much completed our sentence and we just want to get out, Johnston said. You get another five years for trying to escape, so no one wants to screw up.When he is freed in a few months, Johnston plans to either go back to asbestos work or use his barber's license and open up a small shop. And to live with his wife and kids again. To try and get back some of those years I've lost, he said.In the meantime, he's happy to swing a pick or shovel in society again, whatever it takes to spend some time outside the gates.In (prison), sometimes you get treated pretty bad, Johnston said. Out here, we get some of our dignity back."

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