An email from a local citizen caused an abrupt change to a longstanding practice of the Mobile County Work Release program this week.
Pictures sent to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department and several media outlets show county inmates cutting the grass at the privately owned George U. Potter Mason lodge on McDonald Road in Theodore July 23.
Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver said he immediately heard from Sheriff Sam Cochran after the department became aware of the incident. However, it seems the lodge could have been benefiting from prisoner labor for some time.
“The sheriff was notified and contacted me about the issue,” Oliver said. “I was told our work crews had been doing it for quite a while.”
He called the incident an oversight, and said he told those in charge of the work release program to “stop immediately and notify the Mason Lodge.”
The correspondence sent to Lagniappe pointed out Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority Board member Preston Smith was a member of the lodge in question.
When asked, Smith said he “surely is” a member of the lodge, and initially said he no idea the grass was being cut by anyone other than lodge members. However, after speaking with lodge leaders he found out otherwise.
“I spoke the lodge master and he said, “we’ve actually got somebody from the county who has cut it two or three times,’” Smith said. “I don’t know when it started. I really don’t know anything about it because I’m not involved in that.”
Smith, 83, said he used to cut the grass himself when he was younger. These days he said he usually isn’t present at the lodge when it’s cut during the week.
Oliver said reports of workers being used at the lodge caused the department to closely examine other facilities taking advantage of prisoner labor.
“We went over the list in detail and actually identified two Veterans of Foreign Wars (lodges) we were also cutting the grass at,” he said. “We’ve notified them we’ll not be able to continue doing that as well.”
On the whole, Oliver said the work release program has been scaled back over past decade. Nowadays he said it’s typical for only two work crews to be out on the streets most days – as opposed to the three or more crews used in previous years.
“It’s a challenge trying to find inmates that will qualify for inmate worker status,” he said. “We don’t have near the abundance we used to.”
According to Oliver, inmates on the work crew primarily pick up litter and provide maintenance at county-owned buildings. Each day several also work in-house preparing daily meals and preforming janitorial services at the jail.
The county also uses inmate labor to do work for certain nonprofit organizations such as public schools, the Bay Area Food Bank and the American Cancer Society.
When asked if inmates are ever used on private property, Oliver said “absolutely not.”
“That may have been something that was done probably decades ago, but not now,” he said. “It would clearly be an ethics violation.”
Oliver said he wasn’t sure how the Masonic Lodge started being serviced by county inmates, but said he didn’t think it was caused by “anything inappropriate on one person’s part.”
“Whenever we tell a supervisor, they probably don’t question it,” he said. “It was probably something that had been put on their schedule for years.”
Lori Myles, a public affairs officer with the Sheriff’s Department, echoed those statements saying “no one’s name is tied to it, they just follow orders and follow a list.”
Myles said Sheriff Cochran welcomes any input from citizens about any law enforcement practices.
“If it’s brought to our attention, we investigate it,” she said. “We ask for communication with the community via Facebook and the Internet when we’re looking for criminals. We also ask for (people) to tell us about anything (they) don’t think we should be doing.”