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Klickitat Co. agencies looking to revive inmate work program

Klickitat County Building and Grounds may be getting a little extra help this summer if the department, the Board of County Commissioners, and the Sheriff’s Office can agree on how to reboot a county inmate work program that was shelved three years ago.

During a discussion about staffing levels at a commissioners meeting last month, Assistant County Engineer Jeff Hunter approached commissioners about the possibility of Buildings and Grounds department workers using county jail inmates for facilities projects.

In an interview with The Enterprise, Hunter said when the program was active, anywhere from one to four nonviolent offenders would be rewarded for good behavior and allowed to help out with weedeating, moving, prep work for the Klickitat County Fair and Rodeo in August, and other work during the busy summer months.

“[The program] doesn’t take the place of a [Buildings and Ground] person,” Hunter explained, “but in peak times, it helps us better provide a service.”

According to commissioner meeting minutes, the program was suspended in 2010 “due to an error by the Buildings and Grounds employee who was supervising the inmates.”

When asked about the error that caused the revocation of the inmate labor program, Hunter said he didn’t want to go into it “out of privacy for the employee,” whom he did not name.

Klickitat County Sheriff Rick McComas told The Enterprise he was also in favor of the program resuming and noted that the county had been using convict work crews “at least since the early 1900s.” However, McComas explained he made the decision to end the program in mid-2010 after a Buildings and Grounds employee “violated county rules and made an inappropriate decision: sharing information about one of our employees to an inmate.”

McComas also said the employee, whom he believed still worked for the county, did a poor job of examining the inmates for contraband, as there had been instances of convicts returning from work details with items not allowed in the county jail. McComas added the issue never got any better because the “employee felt it wasn’t his job to check inmates.”

Despite his criticism, McComas said that in some ways, having the Building and Grounds employees supervise inmates on their own was a lot to ask, because in addition to the supervision, employees had to get their other work done as well. Moreover, McComas acknowledged that the employees had not received adequate training.

In order to prevent a repeat of these issues, McComas wants commissioners to restore a corrections officer position to the jail that was cut in 2010 due to budget reductions. That person would be responsible for overseeing the inmates in addition to other duties in the off-season. McComas also noted that Lewis County has an education program on how to manage inmate work details and may be able to offer the training to Klickitat County for little to no cost.

McComas said the labor provided by the inmates would, in a way, help recoup a small part of the funds expended to house them, but would also give convicts work experience, incentive to behave, and in general, help with their rehabilitation.

“It’s a win-win situation,” McComas said.

According to both McComas and Hunter, the county commissioners have seemed receptive to using inmate labor, but the logistics still need to be worked out. McComas said when or if things are settled, the program could be up and running within a few weeks.


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