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An inmate work force
Hall County's Correctional Institute prisoners provide millions in labor each year
Hall County Correctional Institute Inmates make their way up Guiness Way Friday afternoon as the crew pick up garbage alongside the small road.
The sorting line at the Hall County recycling center is a busy, noisy place.

A flurry of gloved hands separate clear plastic water bottles from yellow plastic milk jugs that whir by on a conveyer belt. As uniformed detention officers look on, inmate laborers toss the plastic from the steel catwalk where they stand onto mountains of recyclables below.

Five days a week, a dozen inmates work on the sorting line, helping coallate some 4,000 tons of recyclable materials a year in Hall County. Human hands touch nearly everything - paper, plastic, cardboard - except glass.

If not for the inmate laborers, "we probably wouldn't be operating," said Hall County Natural Resource Coordinator Rick Foote. "It would be cost-prohibitive (to hire workers) based on the volume we do."

Across Hall County on any given weekday, more than 100 inmates are working in public places under guarded supervision. They are residents of the Hall County Correctional Institution, a county facility on Barber Road that houses state and county inmates for work details.

Hall County's inmate laborers do much more than pick up trash on the side of the road. They maintain all of Hall County's dozens of parks, cutting grass, weedeating, painting and repairing. They perform routine maintenance on the county's fleet of cars and mow all county rights-of-way. They pick up roadkill. They operate heavy equipment and clear tree limbs and debris left after storms.

Prisoners have even done much of the work building and paving some county roads.

Warden Avery Niles estimated that in March alone, the county's inmate work details were worth $212,000, based on a minimum wage salary. Over the course of a year, that adds up to $2.5 million worth of free labor for Hall County. That figure doesn't doesn't take into account a number of skilled positions that would pay more than minimum wage.

As it is, the inmates make no wages. Many are in the final months or years of their state sentences for crimes commited in other counties and are getting their first taste of the air outside prison walls.

The CI, as it's often referred, is a final stop for many inmates in the prison system before reintegration into society. It's a place where they work toward a return to the free world, learning job skills outside and life skills inside.

"Training and counseling is what we do to make sure that when that person's feet hit the ground after his release, he will not wind up back in the system," Niles said.

The CI houses 221 inmates, 75 of whom are serving county sentences. The other 146 were transferred to the facility from state prisons, in some cases after serving several years for offenses ranging from thefts and drug offenses to aggravated assault.

Those who qualify for a transfer to one of Georgia's 24 correctional institutions are considered low escape risks, classified as either medium or minimum security.

"They're heavily screened through the Georgia Department of Corrections' criteria process," said Capt. Kerry Seabolt, the Hall County Correctional Institution's head of security. "The majority of our inmates are non-violent. We do have some on the back end of their sentences (for violent offenses) who have really proven themselves. We have absolutely no sex offenders."

Accompanying the 124 prisoners who went to work on county property Friday were about 80 correctional officers. They guard over the inmates, no more than 12 prisoners to an officer, sometimes as low a ratio as one to one.

The officers' main job is standing and watching, but they also get their hands dirty with the inmates.

"Most of them will get a little hands-on, to provide some instruction," Seabolt said. "They will help some, as long as they keep their eyes on the inmates - that's the main thing. Our number one job is the security of the public. Second is timely completion of the jobs we have here in Hall County."

Part of a correctional officer's job is "constantly counting the inmates," Seabolt said. There are five official security checks each day, plus many more informal checks. On roadside details, officers "have to watch the inmates, but also everything around them."

Some passing motorists have thrown packs of cigarettes or drugs out to inmates, and "you never know what you're going to find on the side of the road," Seabolt said.

Once, an inmate on a trash detail in Hall County found a loaded handgun, Seabolt said. Acting out of honesty or common sense, he alerted an officer and turned the gun over to him immediately.

For safety reasons, correctional officers are not armed while out on work details.

"The officer's got to get in too close a proximity to the inmates," Seabolt said, adding that the lack of firearms has never become an issue for officers in his 13 years with the county's CI. "The inmates are screened. We're taking them to work, not to jail."

If an inmate becomes aggressive, an armed officer can be dispatched to respond, he said.

Most inmates, however, pose few major problems and rarely try to escape, he said.

In the past year and a half, there has been one escape attempt. "Walk-offs" are hard to predict and often have a lot to do with problems that arise in a prisoner's family life back home.

"It depends on what's going on that we don't know about," Seabolt said. "One day they may feel like they've got to go. Normally they're going go deal with something somewhere. You've just got to figure out where."

Often they don't get that far, thanks to the three tracking dogs the CI keeps. The last escapee was recaptured in a little more than an hour.

At the recycling center, where one inmate drives a front-end loader as others continue sorting, civilian recycling supervisor Jim Sazma praises their work ethic.

"They do a very good job," Sazma said. "For the most part, they're easy to supervise."

Sazma thinks he knows why most of the inmates are good workers.

"They enjoy getting out," he said.

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