Published 9:31 AM EST Jan 7, 2015Inside the Greenwood factory of KM Foods, which smells of pickled tomatoes and onions, Chris Thomas gained skills operating the various machines used to create the polished jars of relish, marinade and barbecue sauce the company sells in grocery stores.Thomas isn't any ordinary worker. At the time he started at the company, the 44-year-old was an inmate in the Caddo Sheriff's transitional work program.Work release, as the program is sometimes called, is an opportunity for prisoners to work in real jobs wearing street clothes and earn money to help ease their transition back into society once their sentences are complete.It's often thought of as a win-win for inmates, the sheriff's office and employers, who receive a $2,400 tax credit per year per inmate. And it reduces recidivism — only 11.1 percent of Louisiana inmates in such programs released in 2012 re-offended after a year compared to 15.6 percent recidivism in inmates overall from that year, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.According to the maximum allowed under DOC rules, sixty-two percent, or $63.50 per day — whichever is less — is taken from each inmate's gross income to pay for lodging, food and transportation. The money also pays for the salaries of the people who prepare food and drive vehicles for the inmates and goes toward parts of the salaries of sheriff's office administrators who run the program, instead of those funds coming from the sheriff's office.' This program actually pays for itself,' said Capt. Demetria Parker, director of Caddo's transitional work program.
It also frees up space in CCC, which is a maximum-security facility. Sheriffs sometimes opt to open a work release system because it can generate money for the department and it provides prisoners job skills.At least one Louisiana work-release program — at the Natchitoches Parish Jail — only draws 55 percent or $60 per day from inmates' pay, whichever is less.
Thirty-eight inmates currently work at the transitional work facility. Offenders typically earn around $7.75 an hour before deductions.' They don't make much money if we take the larger amount, so that's why we just choose not to,' said the program's director, Sherie Moore. But the Natchitoches system has been unable to meet its expenses for the past year and half, Moore said, and has had to be supplemented by funds from the sheriff's office.A 2013 Times story reported that after expenses, the Caddo work release program added $500,000 to CSO's general fund in the fiscal year 2011-12. A similar program in Bossier Parish is shutting down in February after nine years of operation because there were no longer enough qualified inmates for the system and it ceased to be cost-effective, according to Lt. Bill Davis, Bossier Sheriff's office spokesman.Work release is a voluntary program for non-violent offenders serving the last three years of a sentence who are housed in a separate, minimum-security facility next to the Caddo Correctional Center.
The privilege also comes with certain freedoms such as using a back patio and having jobs in manufacturing, the restaurant industry and other fields.' A lot of people say that we should be happy to be able to go to the work release program and actually work, being that we're incarcerated,' said Thomas. 'We appreciate the fact that they let us do this.' But he said making $7.75 an hour, just above minimum wage, and not seeing most of the money made him feel stuck in a vicious existential cycle.' Everyone in there is in there for drugs or stealing or something like that.
Louisiana Doc Work Release Program Inmates
And the only reason that some of the guys did that is that there ain't no jobs,' he said.After about 11 weeks of full-time work at KM Foods, Thomas said he took home around $416. He was allowed to withdraw $20 every week to pay for incidentals, which he said he sometimes spent on cigarettes. Thomas has four daughters, two of whom are under age 18.' The money that I was saving, that was for them,' he said. In the past, Thomas said he experienced a more fair work-release program in Bunkie where he got to keep 50 percent of his paycheck.Sheriff Steve Prator defended the system.' The work release program is voluntary,' he said.
'If he wants to sit in his cell, and he's not pleased with his room and board coming out of there, then he can go back to the main compound and wait his time.' 'In the outside world, you have to pay your own way,' he added.Thomas said his critique is of CSO, not KM Foods, which still employs him even though he was released. The company will no longer receive the $2,400 tax credit now that Thomas is free, according to founder and general manager Doug Moran.'
It is the best program that I've ever seen,' said Moran. 'They bring them to work, they feed them and they pick them up. If you get a hold of one that doesn't work, all you have to do is send them back.'
CSO also regularly drug-tests the work-release inmates, which is one less factor for Moran to worry about.Mark Alleman, manager of Alleman Cycle Plex in Shreveport, said transitional work inmates do the jobs others tend to not want to do and are convenient for seasonal work.' It's just jobs that aren't desirable, that aren't fun to do, like cleaning up,' he said. Inmates at his firm help assemble vehicles, empty trash, and clean.
Alleman said he pays the workers around $8.50 an hour.' It's the lesser of two evils,' said Jesse McKinney, a 34-year-old inmate in the Natchitoches work release organization.
A college-educated former commercial diver with experience in marine construction, McKinney is paid $8.75 an hour to work at a plywood facility.' The stress level is tremendously less' in the transitional work program compared with the normal jail, he said. 'Time seems to move by at a quicker rate because you're working more, and you're constantly moving around, you don't have time to sit and dwell.' Parker said she wasn't aware of inmates complaining about the money being deducted from their check.' They're happy with what they actually take away from the table,' she said, adding that sometimes inmates grow to be managers at the jobs they began during work-release.'
It's better than getting out with nothing,' she said. 'Most of the time, they're having to start over.' Twitter: @mayalauBy the numbersTotal inmates in Caddo's transitional work program2013: 1,7162014: 1,706.