Ulster County Jail’s work detail benefits participants, community
by David Gordon Hudson Valley Times
February 17, 2011
slideshowWork banishes those three great evils, boredom, vice and poverty— Voltaire
They paint buildings. They clear rubbish. They do light – and sometimes not so light – construction. Jail inmates save towns, villages and non-profit organizations in Ulster County many thousands of dollars each year in labor costs. And the inmates appreciate the change of scenery.
Projects can be as small as clearing brush and as large as constructing a building, said corrections officer Vinnie Decker, who operates the program. Recently, inmates assisted with transporting materials between the Washington Avenue library and the temporary location at Town Hall on High Street. Inmates also work at the Mum Festival, the Garlic Festival and July 4 celebrations. A few weeks back, a crew was painting the Katsbaan Reformed Church on Route 32.
For an example of the savings the program can produce, consider a recent job at a church in Port Ewen. The estimate for some painting and repair work was $75,000. The inmates did it for $4,000 – the cost of paint, transportation and meals.
Candidates for the work detail are usually inmates sentenced for non-violent crimes like driving while intoxicated or petty larceny. The work takes inmates out of the jail environment and gives them an opportunity to interact with the community, which helps them readjust to society when they get out, Decker said.
Decker has been in charge of the program since he started it in 1999 under then-Sheriff J. Richard Bockelmann. Other officers used to cover for him when he was on vacation or had a day off in the middle of a project, but with budgets tight these days the program only operates when he’s on duty.
Learn new skills, get some fresh air
Jeremy, a clerical worker serving time for petty larceny, looks forward to work detail.
“There’s a sense of freedom, and you get away from the drama at the facility,” he said.
He declined to go into detail about “the drama,” but said there’s tension among inmates under jail conditions. In addition, Jeremy said, it’s good to learn how to do new things. He cited the installation of a dropped ceiling at the Saugerties Police Department as a learning experience.
Travis worked in management before being convicted of driving while intoxicated. He’s also found construction work interesting. And, he said, it’s good to not be locked up all the time.
Kevin, another inmate, has painting and construction work, as well as landscaping. Since joining the program, he’s added to his skill-set, with jobs involving floor-stripping and waxing and general maintenance. With only five weeks left on his sentence, Kevin said he is considering how to use his skills to start a business of his own. Even if he doesn’t go it alone, “this will help in terms of being employable,” he said.
In general, workers are chosen from among those sentenced for relatively minor non-violent crimes, such as driving while intoxicated or petty larceny. Jail authorities check their backgrounds for health or mental health issues, and those who may be a threat are not admitted to the program. While he could not provide statistics, Decker said he believes fewer inmates who participate in the work program are rearrested than in the general jail population.
Would the program be expanded? Probably not in the near future, said Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum. That would require assigning another officer to it, and that would put pressure on the staff to cover that work. But, he said, “it is a great program.”
Stephanie Steyer, vice president of the Katsbaan Church’s Ladies Aid organization, brought food to the inmates while they worked at the church. Members of the congregation also chipped in with meals. She and the church really appreciate the work the inmates are doing.
“They are great. I love them,” she said.
Like many small churches, Katsbaan, constructed in 1732 by German and Dutch settlers, doesn’t have much money for big projects. Without this program, the congregation would be unable to afford to repaint, Steyer said.
The Steyer is hoping all the renovations can be completed in time for the church’s soup supper on Feb. 26. It’s one of the major fund raising and fellowship events, she said.
Decker summed up the value of the program by pointing out that “in jail, you feel like a convict. Outside, when people treat you like a person, you feel like a person.”
“A little kindness and some good food go a long way,” said Steyer.