Picture prisoners building their own enclosures. It is an interesting concept, but it didn’t have to stop there. One man in the Marion County Jail system saw an interesting opportunity, where both the current prisoners and the prison system can benefit.
Officer Ken Baggett runs a prisoner work program for specialized tasks, anything from construction to metal refurbishing, which allows prisoners to receive six days off their sentence for every 30 days in his program.
Baggett’s program is also responsible for facilitating much of the infrastructure of the Marion County Jail. Hundreds of construction related tasks around the jail have been completed using prisoner labor. Much of the concrete, fencing, security additions, such as razor wire, and even a greenhouse for the prison were all done through Baggett’s program.
The County uses Baggett’s program to build new additions to the jail. Everything from building a half-court basketball court for the employees to “the peanut-butter cage” has been built by prisoner labor.
“We had a problem with the prisoners stealing sugar and other items that could be used as currency,” Baggett said. “So we had to get a little creative.”
Baggett’s program built a cage around all the high value theft items like sugar, salt, peanut-butter, etc. and built a special lock that was used on all the gates around the prison, so there would be less theft.
“Since we built it, the thefts of these items went down to zero,” Baggett said.
Baggett’s program also saved taxpayers approximately $24,000 by fixing two stoves in the Marion County Jail. The two stoves were responsible for cooking about 700 meals daily.
Baggett said the bottom of the stoves were rusting due to the moisture build up from mopping. After first glance, it was decided that the stoves would cost over $12,000 a piece to replace.
“After I took a look at it, I figured we could get a group together to see if we couldn’t fix it ourselves,” Baggett said.
Adding up the materials, prisoner labor and time it took to complete the task, each stove cost about $400 to repair.
In order for these prisoners to work under officer Baggett, they must meet certain criteria. They can not be a sex-offender or convicted of a violent crime. If they meet these criteria, they must still be hand-picked by officer Baggett.
“It is a very successful program,” he said. “I only see maybe one out of 20 of the prisoners in my program again, unless it’s when I’m in civilian clothes.”
Baggett said the prisoners he picks don’t have to have specialized skills so much as a willingness to work. Many of the needed skills are taught to the prisoners on the job in order to give them a skill when they return to the workforce.
David DeNyke, 39, was the head prisoner on the job to rebuild the bottom of the prison stoves. DeNyke, now a former prisoner of the Marion County Jail, was in Baggett’s program for the majority of his sentence.
Outside the jail DeNyke was a landscaper and had no experience working with metal or mechanics but was taught on the job in the program.
“It wasn’t exactly the place I wanted to learn all these things,” he said before he was released, while he was still a prisoner. “But if anything, it will help me get back on my feet when I get out and the program overall has helped me approach things more level headed.”
DeNyke’s newly learned skills and his willingness to work made him very valuable in multiple projects, such as the stoves, The Mobile Jail Cell and “Jail on Wheels” that Marion County constructed to educated the public and multiple contracting jobs around the jail.
This program isn’t just about getting prisoners to work, Baggett said. “It’s about teaching a skill and rewarding motivation.”
He said there hasn’t been many problems with attitudes and misbehavior, but there are always some circumstances.
“You’re always going to have people with bad attitudes, and it’s only natural to have some disputes among inmates,” he said. “But overall, since I pick the inmates, I already have a pretty good idea of who I will have to keep an eye on.”
John Townsend, owner of Marion Metal Woks, said the work on the stoves was a good use of prisoner labor.
“It doesn’t bother me that we didn’t get a chance to do the job,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it for nearly as cheap as $400 a stove.”
Townsend has done many jobs around the state of Florida for prisons that required steel labor. In his experience, work programs like this work well for prisoners because it teaches them new skills.
“Lots of times [prisoners] would be right there beside us helping with the steel in the prison,” he said.
Townsend said he is more likely to hire an inmate who has been a part of some sort of work program while in jail. Inmates who are part of these programs show that they can complete tasks in a timely fashion and are willing to work.
“One of the prisoners that worked beside us on one of the jobs came in and asked for an application,” he said. “I told them to hire him on the spot.”