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Where have inmate labor crews gone?

The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo. — Zach Hillstrom The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

July 17--Back in 2014, the sight of inmate labor groups working in the community was a relatively common occurrence in Pueblo, as two to three crews of inmate laborers from Pueblo County Jail were tackling a variety of community projects five days a week.

Since then, the number of inmate labor groups has been cut by two-thirds and the total number of hours worked by detainees has been reduced by almost 90 percent, causing many Puebloans to pose the question, "Where did they all go?"

According to Detention Center Operations Capt.

Leroy Mora, one of the primary reasons for the significant decrease in inmate labor groups from 2014-16 was the opening of the department's new judicial building and subsequent closing of PCSO's work release center, which stretched thin the department's staff.

"Prior to 2015, when we had our work release

center, we actually had a separate facility that housed individuals that were assigned to work release, plus labor crews," Mora said.

"That required a whole separate staff for the sheriff's office. When we opened up our new judicial building, we were limited on staffing, so the sheriff elected to close down the work release center, and that's one of the reasons why our work crews were diminished because we no longer have the staffing to manage labor crews."

Although the staffing constraints at PCSO have played a large role in the reduction of inmate work groups, Mora said those limitations are only half of the problem. Another pitfall to putting more inmate groups out into the community is a lack of detainees who have faced sentencing for their suspected crimes.

"Anyone that can work, either through a labor crew or even in some of our house duties inside the facility like our laundry and our kitchen, they have to be sentenced inmates," Mora said.

"So when we have a reduction of sentenced inmates, it obviously lowers the number of individuals we can use for work positions, and those are positions that would have to be filled by sentenced inmates. Seeing how most of our population is in presentenced confinement, it's kind of hard for us to even fill some of the positions inside the facility just for cooking and cleaning and stuff like that."

In 2014 alone, labor groups consisting of 6 to 8 inmates logged 42,684 hours of work in the Pueblo community, representing $341,528 worth of free labor after adding up wage totals as if the work performed required payment.

But due to the closing of the work release center and the decrease in sentenced inmates at Pueblo County Jail, those numbers dropped to less than 10,000 hours worked by labor crews in 2015, and less than 5,000 hours worked in 2016.

Because of those reductions in manpower, assistance to many nonprofit agencies as well as projects in the community has been significantly reduced or eliminated. The one remaining inmate labor group is now carefully scheduled to ensure the proper projects and agencies are receiving the assistance they need, such as local 501(c)(3) nonprofit agencies, city and county governments and local churches.

Mora said that should the staffing constraints be resolved and should there be a sufficient number of qualified inmates to fill crews, PCSO will look to restore the inmate labor program to its former vibrancy.

"The sheriff would more than likely love to start the work release program and start more labor crews," Mora said. "So it's not off the table completely, it's just kind of on the backburner. If we ever get to a position where we have the facility and the staffing, that will absolutely be revitalized."

zhillstrom@chieftain.com

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