Legislators looking for places to arrest government spending may target a program that modestly compensates prison inmates for performing job-like duties while serving time.
The $4.2 million program pays inmates between 17 cents and 59 cents an hour to perform menial work like kitchen clean-up and custodial jobs, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
“We do think it provides an incentive for inmates to participate fully in programs and their work assignments. It gives them the opportunity to purchase items from the commissary, purchase books, different things and pay some obligations that they have,” Debra Inglis, DOC general counsel, told lawmakers at the House Consumer and Employee Affairs committee last week.
But “given the financial situation of the state,” lawmakers should reexamine the necessity of the inmate workers program, said Rep. Donna Rowland, R-Murfreesboro.
“I’d really like to look at things we’re spending money on that are not required by us, by law, to do,” said Rowland, secretary of the consumer and employee committee.
Corrections pays out about $350,000 a month to non-maximum security inmates for working several assigned duties during their sentence. Those jobs range from washing laundry and doing yard work to operating as library assistants, recreation specialists and barbers.
The money they make, which is deposited monthly into an inmate’s trust fund, helps pay for items like stamps, copies of legal documents, court costs and outside obligations such as child support.
“That’s a pretty good chunk for people who are really costing our system, isn’t it?” asked Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.
Corrections has been paying inmates for at least the last 40 years, said Dorinda Carter, a department spokeswoman. She said the program combats inmate idleness and assists in rehabilitation by creating a solid work ethic.
“This is the first time some of the inmates have ever worked in their lives so hopefully they will use these skills upon release,” she said.
Between the state’s 14 prisons, 15,482 inmates participate in the program. Corrections currently houses 20,194 total inmates.
Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat, said it’s important that the state find ways to motivate inmates to become productive citizens. She said she liked that this program was one of them.
Lawmakers are currently molding next year’s $28.4 budget. The fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers hope to decide on a budget by the end of April.
High unemployment numbers, lower-than-expected tax collections and an anticipated drop off of federal stimulus funds are throwing this and the next state budget about $1.5 billion out of whack. Now lawmakers have to figure out how to bring the budget into balance, given the gap between anticipated revenues and state spending.
State revenues are $232 million less than expected this fiscal year. The state still has five months left to go before closing out the budget cycle.
Economic prognosticators expect next year’s revenues to also be lower than normal.
Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed chopping off $394.2 million from next year’s budget, which includes a $6.3 million cut in the Department of Corrections.
Andrea Zelinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.