It's a common scene in prison movies set in the deep South: A line of inmates, chained together and decked out in bright orange jumpsuits, dutifully picking up trash or digging a ditch by the side of a dusty road as a shotgun-toting sheriff watches over them through tinted aviator sunglasses.
The chain gang, a big part of corporal punishment for prisoners in the first half of the 20th century, is a relic of a bygone era. But using inmates as cheap extra labor is a practice growing in popularity across the country and in Florida. Now, you can add Miami-Dade county to the list of places where criminal offenders could get a chance to put themselves to good use.
On November 8, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a resolution to prepare a plan for the use of inmate labor in public works projects. If the plan is adopted, it would be the first time in over 20 years that prisoners would be working for the county. It also makes Miami-Dade the latest county in the Sunshine State to try to cut costs by taking advantage of some free labor through its prisons.
Details on the county's specific plans are scarce. Neither of the resolution's sponsors, Jose Diaz or Sally Heyman, returned multiple phone calls from Riptide seeking comment. In an email, Gayle Love, a spokesperson for the county's Public Works and Waste Management Department, wrote that the "use of inmates would have to be studied further before committing to any particular process or project."
The basic details, however, call for a plan in which a select group of inmates would do menial, unskilled work -- mostly maintenance, landscaping, and clean-up. Those eligible for the work program would likely be chosen from a pool of low-risk offenders -- those with misdemeanor convictions, on probation, or in pre-trial detention. Through contracts the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department has with other government offices, inmates could also do work in waste management, transit, at the medical examiner's office, or in animal control.
What complicates matters is whether Miami's particular prisoners can be trusted outside their cells. The Department of Corrections noted in the November 8 meeting that roughly 90 percent of the county's 5,200 inmates haven't been sentenced, and as such, the department can't vouch for their level of risk. On top of that, of the prisoners who would be eligible for working, the department estimates that some 40 to 50 percent wouldn't be medically cleared to do grunt work.
If Miami does put its prisoners to work, it'll join a number of other Florida counties that have gone that way. Brevard County ran into controversy in 2010 when it slashed public works jobs and started using more inmate labor. Back in May, the city of Bradenton extended its deal with the state to use Hardee County inmates to assist its public works department. Up in Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott was all set to expand the state's inmate labor program to grow crops to feed the prisons, a move he claimed would save Florida nearly $1 billion. The State Legislature voted down an increase in funding in November 2011, but the program still exists today.
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For the time being in south Florida, prisoners will stay indoors, away from shovels and pickaxes; there's no timetable for the county commission's plans to become reality.
Though don't be surprised if you're driving down the highway in the near future and a man in an orange jumpsuit and some broken manacles tries to flag you down for a ride out of town.