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Inmate Labor Used For Community Projects, But COVID-19 Has Limited Its Scope

The elf display at the 2019 Bright Nights at Forest Park event, one of the projects that traditionally uses inmate labor.
Hoang (Leon) Nguyen
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
The elf display at the 2019 Bright Nights at Forest Park event, one of the projects that traditionally uses inmate labor.

The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department said it may pause its practice of lending out inmates for community labor if COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

In most years, community groups and city departments ask for inmate labor on short-term projects, such as Springfield’s Bright Nights holiday display or housing authority maintenance.

The organizations get the labor for free, but sheriff spokesman Robert Rizzuto said the inmates, who must apply for the work, are generally paid between $3 and $20 a day.

“It's not supposed to be considered a livable wage,” Rizzuto said. “All their needs are already being met. But that stipend can be built up, and over time through somebody’s stay with us, they can take that and use it for first and last month's rent when they get out, perhaps a down payment on a car."

Rizzuto said the “community restitution crews,” as they’re called, also teach job skills and the value of “an honest day’s work.”

“It's also giving back to the community,” he said. “They're out there every day working to help other people, as opposed to perhaps some of their past activities which landed them here, which harm the community.”

But with COVID-19, Rizzuto said the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department has had to limit crews to the safest outside work, so inmates don’t bring the virus back into the jail.

Earlier in the pandemic, all restitution crews were cancelled. And if virus rates keep going up, he said it’s possible they will cancel them all again.

Rizzuto said 21 Hampden County jail inmates and 29 staff members have tested positive for COVID since the pandemic started.

Rizzuto said inmates usually help to set up the Bright Nights holiday lights display, but he was told the city had a grant this year to use other labor.

An organizer of the Bright Nights event, Spirit of Springfield President Judy Matt, said in an email she didn’t know of any grant. Matt declined to be interviewed.

Rizzuto said inmates may still help break down the display.

Inmate labor is common across the country, though some people question the rate of pay.

“If they were paid a fair wage, they could pay for phone calls and canteen and not have to rely on their loved ones — which would go a long way to toward benefiting the community,” said Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Rizzuto said some people have "made a political football” out of the issue, but there’s no internal discussion about increasing inmate pay.

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