The Escambia County Road Prison Program

Jeff Bohannon
Superintendent
Escambia County Road Prison
Cantonment, Florida

Background
The Escambia County Road Department of today would be unrecognizable to those employees present at its inception. Today's Road Department consists of three divisions: Roads and Bridges, Fleet Maintenance, and the Road Prison. The Roads and Bridges Division provides the operators and field supervisors that execute and oversee the County/Department projects. The Fleet Maintenance Division provides and maintains the required vehicles and equipment, and the Road Prison Division provides the Road Corrections Officers and inmate labor force. Each Field Supervisor is assigned areas of responsibility throughout the county, and the Road Corrections Officers come under the supervision of these Field Supervisors. In order to receive a promotion from Corrections Officer to Road Corrections Officer, an officer must possess extensive construction knowledge and experience. Armed with this knowledge and experience, the Road Corrections Officer may assume responsibility for the site in the absence of the Field Supervisor. However, the Road Corrections Officer is solely responsible for the care, custody, and control of the inmates in his charge at all times.

This article will primarily address the Road Prison Division and its contribution to the mission accomplishment of the Road Department, but the integration of assets that our Road Department consists of is what really makes our program successful. The cost savings to our citizens is noteworthy. The use of inmate labor in the execution of major construction projects has been a significant contribution to these savings. In addition, the benefits to the inmates themselves and the impact these have on the community will be addressed in more detail as follows.

The Road Prison Division
The current prison structure was built in 1974, but the prison was first established in the early 20th century. From the beginning, the mission of the prison was to provide a labor force to the Escambia County Road Department in order to execute county projects. Initially, these projects were limited to roadside cleanup and grass cutting. As the years progressed, the benefits garnered through the use of inmate labor became evident, and the prison was expanded to accommodate a larger number of inmates. Additional tasks were also added, and the Road Department was restructured to meet the new demands. This is an ongoing process.

The Escambia County Road Prison is part of the Escambia County Board of Commissioners, not the Escambia County Sheriff's Office. However, we maintain a close relationship with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, Jail Division, and the prison receives inmates from that agency. Before being assigned to the prison, inmates must meet stringent criteria, reducing the risk of escape attempts. In addition to sentenced inmates, we are able to use non-sentenced inmates in accordance with Florida Statutes. They must volunteer and sign a waiver provided by the jail. The prison is the only county-sanctioned prison in the State of Florida. This structure provides a great deal more flexibility to the Board of Commissioners.

As outlined above, the inmates of Escambia County Road Prison provide a tremendous labor force for the county. This labor force is free, and greatly reduces the cost of construction projects throughout the county. Some of the major contributions are:

  • Demolish and remove old drainage systems.
  • Construct major new drainage systems.
  • Construct and maintain holding ponds.
  • Daily maintenance of roadways.
  • Storm damage cleanup.

There are also intangible benefits. By assigning inmates to the prison, the Escambia County Jail reduces overcrowding issues. The cost of housing an inmate at the prison is less than at the jail, another cost savings to the taxpayers.

The rehabilitation of inmates has been a concern of our society for decades. Different facilities address this issue in different ways, with varying results. Our approach has provided excellent results to date. Our approach is one of the "whole man" concept, an attempt to "reconstruct" as opposed to "rehabilitate." In addition to providing our inmates with opportunities they may never have had, we have introduced programs that provide opportunities for inmates to change their priorities and perspectives. Another benefit is that other county agencies and the citizens of Escambia County have recognized this benefit and have joined us in our endeavors. In addition to the tremendous cost savings provided through the use of inmate labor in our daily projects, our inmate training programs provide services to other county agencies at tremendous cost savings to them, and ultimately the county taxpayers.

A small drainage project the inmates recently worked on, one of many completed at a tremendous savings to the taxpayers.

We currently have three formal education training programs available to the inmates. These programs are provided under contract with the Escambia County School Board and George Stone Vocational School, a local vocational facility. The school provides instructors three days per week to teach the inmates on the prison facility. The construction projects the inmates execute during training become county assets upon completion. The prison in turn provides "students" to the school in programs that were in danger of being lost for lack of participation. The inmates receive certifications at each level achieved just as they would were they attending the vocational school at their own expense. In addition, the instructors have years of experience in their respective trades, and the resulting network with potential employers provides an excellent opportunity for job placement for the inmates on release. This has been very successful, evidenced by the fact that many employers constantly request more of our released inmates. In addition, some of these employers have recognized the benefit of these programs to the extent they have made large contributions to them. For example, three of the beneficiary employers have donated 105,000 pounds of steel to the welding program within the last year, a cost savings of $81,900 if purchased at market value of $0.78 per pound.

In addition, we have enhanced job placement opportunities through partnership with Vocational Rehabilitation. Vocational Rehab evaluates the inmates in each of the programs, and helps them transition back into society. They provide basic tools and clothing necessary to begin work, and follow their progress for at least six months after release. These formal training programs are:

  • Horticulture/landscaping
  • Welding
  • Carpentry

These three programs alone have contributed to cost savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers through the execution of major projects for other county agencies. In addition, our community gains productive citizens who previously were a detriment. Other programs that benefit inmates and citizens alike are:

  • Cattle farming and harvesting
  • Catfish farming and harvesting
  • Vegetable farming and harvesting
  • Hay harvesting

With the exception of hay harvesting, which is used for drainage and road construction (at a cost savings of roughly forty thousand dollars per year), these programs keep the cost of feeding officers, staff and inmates very low ($0.62/ person/meal). Facilities that use contract food services have an average cost of over $3/person/meal.

In addition to providing inmates with opportunities to learn a trade, we look at the "whole man" concept, providing programs that we hope will change their priorities and perspectives. These programs are:

  • 40 Days of Purpose program
  • Parenting classes
  • Bible study classes

All these programs are strictly voluntary, and well received by the inmates.

Summary
Agencies/departments throughout the nation probably deploy an integration of assets similar to the Escambia County Road Department. The primary difference in our program and other agency programs is the manner in which we use inmates. The cost savings are substantial, and the intangible benefits gained via inmate training programs are significant. Additionally, the immeasurable benefits gained through the coming together of other county agencies, the community, and potential employers in ensuring the success of these programs, all working together to make our county and state a better place to live and work, are significant. In a nutshell, there are no losers. The taxpayer gains through tremendous cost savings, the community gains productive citizens, the employer gains a trained, experienced employee, and the inmate gains an enhanced quality of life.

Jeff Bohannon can be reached at (850) 937-2105 or jeff_bohannon@co.escambia.fl.us.