St. Joseph's use of inmate labor draws criticism

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Associated Press

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Prison labor costs the city only about $1 per inmate, but a local union official says the practice has prevented law-abiding residents from earning money.

City Manager Vince Capell instituted a no-construction policy for inmates in 2002, but questions have continued to arise about how the city has used inmate labor.

The city's 2003 contract with the Missouri Department of Corrections says the inmates can't "adversely affect any statewide economic growth or industry, nor result in the displacement of civilian workers." The inmates also can't work "in skilled employment positions or to perform work, which requires certification, or licensing."

"We're not going to complain about them cutting weeds ... or grass, but when we start talking about jobs that working taxpayers could be doing, that is troubling," said Greg Logan, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 545. "And let's face it, where do you stop it? So that's why we're speaking out about it."

Three city departments use inmate labor: Public Works, Property Maintenance and Parks and Recreation. Each inmate costs the city $7.50 per day, and the departments insist they do not use inmates for skilled tasks. They say they use the inmates mainly for such things as mowing, trimming and clearing crosswalks after winter storms.

"They allow us to do things that we wouldn't be able to do otherwise," said Public Works Director Bruce Woody.

The use of inmate labor has been an issue in St. Joseph for several years.

Inmates worked on the construction of baseball fields at Bartlett Park in summer 2002, prompting Capell's policy.

After inmates were found onsite during renovations of Krug Pool in April 2004, Capell told parks Director Bill McKinney to completely ban prison crews from the department's construction sites.

Then, in July 2005, inmates worked on property owned by the friend and husband of two city employees. The city and Department of Corrections reiterated that inmates could work only on public property.

Last summer, construction companies complained when Public Works used inmates to help during concrete pours on a city street that was being replaced, but the department stopped the practice after receiving complaints.

"Frankly, I'm still comfortable with it, but it's not worth the controversy, I guess," Woody said. "We want to be sensitive to people. It just seems a shame that if taxpayers are paying to hold them incarcerated that they wouldn't be able to get something for that."

Information from: St. Joseph News-Press,

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