Inmates help trim budgets

Work crews from Larch Corrections Center offer non-profits, agencies low-cost labor

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoClark Public Utilities has contracted Department of Corrections community work crews for four days a week for the past 15 years. Throughout the year, inmates either ready saplings to be planted or plant trees along streams to increase the quality of the water that feeds into public and private wells.

(/The Columbian)

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Wearing red shirts, red pants and red hard hats, a group of 10 men trimmed bushes and hauled debris at a rest stop west of Battle Ground on a rainy Wednesday.

The men aren't volunteering. They are inmates who are part of the Larch Corrections Center community work crew, which contracts with nonprofits and other government agencies to offer low-cost manual labor.

"They view (the work crew) as a privilege because they get to get out of the facility," said Sgt. Mark Francis, who oversees the work crew program. "They want to be there, they want to give back to the community."

The program, however, was halted when Larch's capacity and staff were cut in half in April 2010. Despite facing closure several times, Larch remained open and returned to full capacity. The program was reinstated in January 2011 and inmates went back to work by March of 2011.

And the government agencies that benefit are glad to see the tax-saving program back in full swing.

"(The inmates) are an integral part of what we do," said Jeff Wittler, environmental resources manager for Clark Public Utilities.

By charging agencies $131 for 10 men to work an eight-hour day, Larch breaks even. The program also benefits taxpayers thanks to the reduced-rate labor it offers government agencies.

Clark Public Utilities has been a regular customer of the work crew labor for 15 years, putting a crew to work four days a week throughout the year.

Most of the time, inmates either plant trees or ready saplings to be planted.

Trees along Salmon Creek and the East Fork of the Lewis River act as a filter for the water that goes into aquifers and feeds about 30 public wells and thousands of private wells in the county.

To restore the stream process, inmates plant trees along the waterways, thus increasing the water quality. Supervisors keep the inmates in eyesight at all time and do an hourly count, Francis said.

Without the work crew program, Wittler said, "we probably wouldn't do the work … or we would not get near as much done as we do."

When they started using the Department of Corrections crews in 1998, the public utilities agency went from planting 5,000 to 6,000 trees a year to between 40,000 and 50,000 trees a year.

And with similar work costing between $400 and $500 a day, the utilities agency spends a fraction of the cost to get the work done.

"I was apprehensive at first," Wittler said. "But then I thought, we'll give it a shot."

The experience has changed his opinion of people with a criminal record.

"I saw them working hard and it really dispelled some of the myths," he said. "I would have assumed they would have been unmotivated, didn't work very hard, wouldn't get a lot accomplished. That's just not the case. A lot of them really do a good job."

Aside from saving other agencies money, the program also teaches inmates work ethic.

Take, for example, D'Shawn Ruch.

For the first year and a half of his prison stay, Ruch wasn't motivated by the various jobs that are available to Larch inmates.

He admits he had a similar attitude of holding down a job when he was a free man.

"I didn't like it," the 25-year-old Tacoma man said. "You make $9 to $12 an hour — but I can jack somebody and be good for a long time."

Behind bars, Ruch is part of the correction center's work crew. At first, he said, he would rarely show up. The 50 cents an hour wage that inmates earn for their manual labor didn't seem worth it.

"I never came," he said. "I would sleep in, do nothing."

But at the turn of the year, something clicked. He started waking up at 4 a.m. to join the crew, which travels from the center east of Hockinson in the Yacolt Burn State Forest to various places around Clark County to do landscape work. He said that maintaining trails, trimming hedges and planting trees has taught him that an honest job isn't as bad as he thought.

"I really don't want to come back here," Ruch said, adding that his father is in prison for life.

Serving time for assault with a deadly weapon, this is Ruch's second prison stay. By his release, he will have spent a total of five of his 25 years locked up. Ruch said he sees the time he spends on work crew now as good practice for his plans after his release in six months.

"I thought, if I can do it in here, I can do it out there," he said.

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;emily.gillespie@columbian.com.

View a video of Larch work crews on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.