Alabama Prisons

Work Release Suspension Has Hurt the Pockets of Inmates, Prisons and Victims

Birmingham Women’s community-based facility/community work center. (Source: Tom Gordon)

UPDATED — Responding to the coronavirus, the Alabama Department of Corrections suspended its work release program in mid-March, and figures for May show how that decision has led to a drastic drop in inmate earnings, the amount of restitution that work release inmates pay to their victims, and the amount of inmate earnings that goes to corrections itself.

Here are some snapshots of the situation:

  • In May, an indeterminate number of work release inmates received gross salaries of nearly $37,000. In four work release locations, including the women’s center in north Birmingham, the gross salary figure was zero.
  • In February, the last month in which the work release program was fully operational, 1,135 work release inmates who had jobs received nearly $1.8 million in gross salaries. In Birmingham, the 69 work release inmates who had jobs earned gross salaries of nearly $84,000.
  • Corrections spokesman Samantha Rose said the May gross salary figure reflects either payments for work done before the work release program’s suspension or “wages earned by inmates working inside our facilities. A number of employers also continue to pay their employed inmates despite the suspension of our work release program, perhaps due to their receipt of COVID-19 stimulus funds or Payroll Protection Program loans,” Rose said.
  • In May, the average work release inmate salary for the month was $48.42. In February, that figure was nearly $1,600.
  • In May, corrections deposited $8,670 in work release inmate accounts. In February, that figure was $542,680.
  • In May, work release inmates paid $1,273.27 in restitution and civil claims and $323.08 in court-ordered child support. In February, they paid nearly $101,000 in restitution and civil claims and more than $26,000 in child support.
  • Corrections withholds 40% of each work release inmate’s gross pay. In May, inmates paid nearly $15,000 to the department. In February, they paid the department more than $716,000.

The state prison system has 20 work release and work centers around the state, including a center for female inmates in north Birmingham. It also has a separate work center, Red Eagle, near Montgomery. In May, 15 work release inmates were based at the medium-security Montgomery Women’s Facility.  On March 18, corrections suspended outside work for eligible inmates at those facilities because of the growing threat of the coronavirus.

The suspension originally was slated to run through May 22, but it has not been lifted. Meanwhile, the coronavirus cases in the state have steadily risen, with nearly 73,000 cases as of Thursday and 1,357 deaths.

Hardly a day goes by now without corrections announcing more employees and inmates testing positive. Corrections reported Friday that 181 inmates and 280 employees had tested positive for the virus. Fifteen of those inmates and two of those employees have died. A total of 120 inmate COVID-19 cases are still active, while 158 prison staffers have been cleared to return to work, according to corrections data.

“Given the evolving and unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot yet offer a definitive timeline as to when the ADOC will resume its work release and work center programs,” corrections communications director Linda Mays said earlier this month in an email. “We can say, however, that our decision to resume these programs will be entirely dependent on our ability, as well as our community partners’ abilities, to ensure the safety and well-being of our inmates, our staff and the public.”

In May, Department of Corrections facilities held 20,170 inmates, a figure that does not include inmates sentenced to Alabama prison terms who are housed in county jails, federal prisons or in another state prison system. Of that in-house total, 3,003 inmates, or about 15 percent, are housed in work release/work centers.

The work release program has been operating for more than 40 years. According to statistics for May, 1,378 inmates were in the program.

Work release inmates wear civilian clothes or a uniform required by their employer. They have worked in factories, restaurants, packing plants and other civilian sector businesses and have received a wage comparable to what their civilian counterparts are paid.

Community work center inmates, on the other hand, do not receive a prevailing wage and wear prison garb. They work on projects for state and local government agencies.

Inmates selected for work release are considered low security threats. Among other things, work release jobs are supposed to help ready them for re-entry into civilian life, give them a skill or give them a positive mark on their record if they are seeking parole. They often use part of their earnings to support their families and pay required restitution or civil claims to their victims.

“If their classification status allows, the department requires inmates who physically can work to contribute to their cost of incarceration so that the financial burden does not rest entirely upon taxpayers’ shoulders,” corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose said earlier this year.