This newspaper’s probing of questions surrounding the management of a state-mandated program where welfare recipients were required to perform physical labor at county sites prompted interesting comparisons to a similar, but seemingly better-managed program operated under the auspices of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.
That program—technically the Alternatives to Incarceration Program, but known colloquially as the Sheriff’s Work Release Program—has produced millions of dollars in savings, yet has been free of safety incidents and public safety concerns for the past two decades.
This, despite running three crews five days a week.
Joe Jastrzemski, the coordinator of the Alternatives to Incarceration program, told us a bit about what has been his charge for the past 19 years Monday, explaining that the goals of the program are twofold: to give those who have broken the law an opportunity to make their misdeeds right with the community, and to help save local governments and nonprofit agencies the costs associated with hiring laborers for many menial tasks.
“These are non-violent offenders who, in many cases it makes no sense to put behind bars at expense to the taxpayers,” Jastrzemski told us. “Just last year, participants in this program saved the taxpayers of Niagara County a little over $1.6 million that we would have spent housing and feeding them in our county jail. Instead of costing the taxpayers for their care, they produced 13,949 hours of free labor for local governments and non-profits.”
The program also utilizes low-risk county jail inmates, offering them a few hours of supervised work in the fresh air in exchange for their labor. The inmates provided an additional 8,960 hours of free labor.
Jastrzemski says that, assuming a $10 per hour average wage, the inmates and Alternatives to Incarceration labor saved city and town governments and various nonprofit agencies $226,000 in outlays.
Jastrzemski said both the savings from not housing Alternatives to Incarceration defendants and the overall amount of labor performed in the community was relatively consistent, year to year.
“Many of these people made a mistake or a bad choice, but have skills and want to make their actions right,” Jastrzemski said. “We had skilled painters repainting the inside of a local building, for instance. We try to align skills where it’s possible with the tasks at hand.”
Jastrzemski—who in his spare time is Wilson’s Republican supervisor and that party’s candidate to replace outgoing Niagara County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow—showed us a folder containing at least 100 letters from nonprofits and local governments in every corner of the county thanking him and Sheriff James R. Voutour for the assistance provided by the sentenced offenders. A quick review of its contents found letters from dozens of volunteer fire companies thanking Jastrzemski and Voutour for providing labor for everything from repainting fire halls to setting up fire company field days, as well as from town supervisors and then-Mayor Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, all praising the program for lowering costs.
One letter, in particular, caught our eye. Written on the letterhead of Niagara Catholic High School, the letter noted that “the contribution of workers enabled us to redirect funds to other educational endeavors.”
Similar was a letter from the Lockport Police Department that praised the convict labor for having detailed the city’s fleet of squad cars: “Our fleet looks great inside and out when they are done,” wrote the then-head of the LPD’s Traffic and Support Services Division, Amy Wiltse.
Even public libraries got in on the act, using inmate labor to help organize their Friends of the Library books sales.
“In many cases, these are people who know they made a bad choice, and want the opportunity to put it right. We give them that chance,” Jastrzemski said.
He noted that, in 19 years coordinating the program, there had never been an incident where an inmate or an Alternatives to Incarceration defendant had ever acted out.
“There is absolutely no benefit to be had in abusing this privilege,” Jastrzemski said. “We are giving non-violent inmates an opportunity to get some fresh air, and other convicted individuals—again, non-violent—a way to avoid seeing the inside of our jail. It’s a pretty good bargain.”
Jastrzemski also noted that demand for inmate labor was being driven partly by societal trends, with many community and civic groups unable to muster adequate volunteer labor for community goals. His program tends to fill that gap nicely.
We raised the issue of worker safety with Jastrzemski, noting that many suggestions pointed to a callous attitude toward the welfare work details that had entered the Shaw Building and likely come in contact with asbestos insulation.
“Safety is always a top concern,” Jastrzemski explained. “I have three supervisors under me, and they are all trained on worksite safety. And, we also try to utilize the skills of inmates where possible, so that they have some basic familiarity with the task at hand. In 19 years, there have been zero safety incidents. That’s something we’re proud of, but it’s something my team always works at.”
Jastrzemski declined to speculate about what went wrong with the county’s welfare work program, but offered this insight: “I have three supervisors who work for me who understand that, while they are on a job site, those inmates, those convicted defendants, no matter what they might have done, are their charge. I expect that, at the end of the day, while they should be tired out, they should come away having had a rewarding, fair work experience and an opportunity to pay their debt to their community.”
The Reporter can’t help but wonder if, had that attitude been in place among managers of the county’s welfare work program, the entire asbestos matter might have been avoided.