States and localities across the country are looking for ways to cut costs amid budget shortfalls, and one county is taking an approach that many residents find controversial: hiring prison inmates as fire fighters.
Camden County, Georgia is considering an “inmates-to-firefighters” program as one way to keep residents’ fire insurance costs from more than doubling, according to The Florida Times-Union. The program is one of multiple options Camden’s Board of County Commissioners are considering, but officials say hiring inmates as firefighters would be more cost-effective than the other options, saving the county more than $500,000 per year.
Camden County’s decision comes as localities around the country are curbing police, fire department and other services to cope with shrinking budgets. The Stevens Point Fire Department in Stevens Point, Wisconsin is aiming to trim its budget by more than $140,000 through overtime changes and other measures, according to The Stevens Point Journal. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in March that he wanted to cut the fire department’s ranks to deal with looming budget deficits, according to the Gotham Gazette.
And it's not just fire departments that are experiencing the squeeze. Public-sector job cuts have slowed the recovery, even as the private sector made gains. Government officials slashed 34,000 jobs in September, while the private sector created jobs, according to The Department of Labor.
Camden’s inmates-to-firefighters program isn’t the only way former criminals are getting put to work in Georgia.
After the state passed a law in the summer cracking down on undocumented immigrants, Georgia farmers complained that they couldn’t produce at the levels they were accustomed to because the migrant laborers who pick berries and cucumbers were too fearful of deportation to come to work. In response Republican Governor Nathan Deal started an experiment where he made crews of unemployed probationers available for farmers to hire to replace the migrant workers.
While working on a farm or as a fire fighter may seem like a strange place to find a prisoner or ex-convict, states use prisoner work crews in a variety of capacities beyond just cleaning up trash on the side of the road. In Maryland, some prisoners have planted more than 2.5 million trees in the past three years, according to NPR. They also maintain a rescue farm for thoroughbred horses.
But some localities are re-examining their prisoner labor programs in response to budget concerns. Michigan and North Carolina eliminated their prison inmate labor programs and Florida reduced its program by 40 percent this year, USA Today recently reported.