Photo | Shane Rice
Melissa Holifield’s morning routine is similar to a lot of people’s: She wakes up a little after 6 a.m., gets showered, dressed and ready for work then carpools to her job with a few co-workers. What makes her situation different is Holifield — and those co-workers — are all inmates at Mobile County Metro Jail.
When she was arrested for third-degree burglary in August, Holifield wasn’t working. Today she’s earning $8 an hour working full time at a light manufacturing job, sending money out to help support her children and saving to pay off her bond. With any luck, she’s hoping to keep the job once she’s released.
Holifield said working has also helped build up her self-esteem, which took a hit after she was arrested.
“A lot of people, our families gave up on us or get mad at us when we come to jail, and having money helps us if we want to help somebody on the outside or take care of ourselves,” Holifield said. “It shows our family we’ve got some more responsibility about ourselves and we’re trying to do something better.”
Holifield is one of a small number of inmates participating in the off-site work release program the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) relaunched in 2012. It’s helped a number of non-violent inmates at Metro Jail find work while incarcerated or keep jobs they already had. And over the past three years, it has grown substantially as more employers have agreed to hire on and in some cases train inmates who qualify for the program.
Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett said work release is a “wonderful option” for non-violent offenders who “need to be punished” but have obligations they wouldn’t be able to meet behind bars 24 hours a day.
“Work release allows inmates to continue to support their families and, more importantly, it allows them to pay restitution to victims and to help pay off their court costs,” Lockett said. “When things go right, it helps inmates get back into the working world and eliminates a lot of the barriers to their re-entry.”
According to Deputy Warden Sam Houston, Mobile County first established a work release program back in the late 1970s under Sheriff Tom Purvis, but when federal funds dried up, the program shut down. For decades, there was no off-site work release program at Metro with third-party employers, even though the jail has used “trustees” and other inmates to perform work inside and outside of the jail for a number of years.
In 2012, Sheriff Sam Cochran tapped Houston to help relaunch a work release program, and he believes it’s proven to be quite beneficial, not just for the jail, but also for inmates, employers and the community.
“The inmates are getting a source of income and a job where, in many cases, they are learning a skill. Ideally you’re hoping they keep that job when they get out because it keeps them off the street,” Houston said. “We’re always looking for ways to reduce recidivism, and people are much more likely to reoffend if they don’t have a job when they leave and then can’t get a job because they’ve been in jail.”
Working behind bars
Even though he’s been in the South for decades, MCSO Work Release Director Lt. David Mercurio still has a New Jersey accent that tells on him almost immediately. Around the jail, most people call him “Merc” — a nickname that stuck with him through a 29-year-career with the Mobile Police Department (MPD).
He worked with Cochran during his time at MPD, and was brought on to help develop and expand the work release program in 2017. By pretty much any measurement, he’s done that. As of last week, there were 64 Metro inmates working outside the facility, up from only a dozen or so when Mercurio started.
The number of female inmates in the program has also shot up tremendously, from five to about 29 currently.
Those numbers always fluctuate because most county inmates aren’t in jail for extended periods of time, though there are some exceptions. But whether they’re serving a limited state sentence or just waiting to make bond on a case that hasn’t been adjudicated, most inmates would prefer to get into work release.
In addition to the money, one of the perks is getting to stay in the barracks, which houses “minimum security” prisoners. There, inmates bunk together in dorms, not cells, and it’s typically less violent and less crowded that most wedges in Metro’s main building across the street.
“[Work release] a pretty popular program,” Mercurio said. “A lot of times, we’ll go and talk to somebody in the jail and by the time we get back to the office [my computer] is blowing up with messages.”
Those messages come in from inmates using the jail’s in-house message system, and Mercurio said, on a slow day, he probably gets about 50 from inmates asking to be put into the program and start working.
As the program has become more well known, Mercurio said he’s also started getting requests from lawyers whose clients haven’t even turned themselves in yet. He said even a few employers have called first, asking to get an employee in the program so they’ll be allowed to work during incarceration.
Not every inmate qualifies, though, and part of Mercurio’s job is weeding out those who don’t. Metro has high standards for determining which inmates are allowed to work off-site. According to Houston, they can’t have committed a violent or sexual offense and can’t have any medical or meath health concerns.
In addition to checking inmates’ criminal backgrounds, Mercurio also has to make sure they are willing and able to work once they actually get to their jobs. Like people on the outside, he said some inmates will embellish their skill set if it means landing a job and getting some time out of the jail.
“I could probably go back there and ask, ‘can you do surgery?’ Somebody will say, ‘yes,’” he added.
Mercuiro said the jail tries to work with inmates who simply can’t perform the work that certain jobs require, but if someone is fired by their employer for any kind of misconduct or impropriety, they are removed from the program and moved back across the street, in most cases indefinitely.
That usually raises the stakes for most inmates, though there have been some who couldn’t cut working on the outside. For the most part, though, employers have seemed happy with the program and inmates, several of whom are taking hard-to-fill positions. In some cases, the employers are keeping them on after they leave the jail.
“When I talk to these employers, it seems like nobody can find people to work. Seems like every person under 30 now wants to get $50 an hour and come and go and they please,” Mercurio said. “At least they know our guys are going to be there, because it’s a choice between going to work or sitting in this place.”
For a lot of inmates, the program is a way to retain a job they have coming into the jail, but for others, like Melissa Holifield, work release provides an opportunity to obtain a new job and new skills. For a lot of employees it also offers a sense of normalcy and a structured routine.
Cochran said that’s been especially good for those struggling with substance abuse. He said he met one inmate who opted to stay in jail because of the program, when he could have paid his bond and left.
“He said, ‘no, I’m clean, I’m sober and I’m right where I need to be,’ and chose to stay in jail,” Cochran told Lagniappe. “Most of these inmates in work release are non-violent people … and good people. Some of them just have drug or alcohol problems, but in jail, they’re sober and they’re able to work.”
Every morning, most inmates are out the door of the barracks by 6:15 a.m. They check in with the guards, take a lunch provided by the jail and head into work. A few of the employers have hired multiple inmates, who are transported by MCSO, but others arrange to be picked up by family, friends or coworkers.
At any given time during the work day, the only thing stopping a work release inmate from running off is themselves. That and knowing they’ll be charged with escape, which in most cases would add years to their sentences and get them banned from the program indefinitely.
Yet, of the hundreds of inmates who have come through the program since he joined in 2017, Mercurio said he can only recall about 10 ever attempting to flee. While it’s not often, it does happen.
In the last two years, two escapees, Torres Ransom and Jessie Rhodes, made the local news. Rhodes walked away from a job site not far from the jail in June 2018, and Ransom escaped earlier this year while his employer was transporting him back to Metro Jail after work. Both were caught and charged with escape.
While Houston said any type of escape is embarrassing, he also said the inmates who have fled from county work release sites have typically had pretty benign criminal histories. Ransom had domestic violence issues and a few theft charges and Rhodes had no history of violence on his criminal record.
“The worst thing that could ever happen is to have a guy with a horrible, violent criminal history who goes out and commits another horrible violent crime,” Houston said. “The first question people are going to ask is, “Why in the hell was he in the program?” That’s why we’re really selective about this program.”
One thing that helps keep inmates from running is that, for most of them, it just doesn’t make sense. Is it worth it for someone on a 90-day sentence to risk an escape charge and a year or more behind bars? Most would say no. Albert Miller, who is serving three years for a 2017 stalking conviction, is one of them.
“Of course it crosses your mind, but you gotta look at the rules. Is it worth it? It’s not to me,” Miller said. “If they get you with an escape charge, that’s 15 years mandatory behind the fence, depending on what you’re in for, and you’ll never get into another work release program or anything like that again.”
Another part of Mercurio’s job is to work as a liaison to the employers to make sure inmates are where they say they are and they’re not visiting anyone or any place while they’re supposed to be working. He said inmates that aren’t being transported by the jail have allocated times to get to and from work.
Mercurio keeps tabs on all of that — making unannounced visits to job sites, and comparing the hours inmates claim they worked to the hours on their paychecks. However, he said it’s not possible for the jail staff to follow around 64 inmates 12 hours a day, and work release ultimately requires some level of trust.
“We don’t have chips in them to track them or anything. The odds are good that somebody is going to stop at a convenience store to get something to eat or drink at some point, and we can’t really monitor that,” Mercurio said. “But we regularly check their in and out sheets, if they’ve signed out of the jail for 60 hours and their paycheck is only showing 15 hours — in police work we call that a clue.”
Making money, spending money
What inmates get paid depends on the job they have. It can especially vary for those who keep the job they had before they were incarcerated. Mercurio said he’s worked with inmates bringing in up to $32 an hour, though the majority are earning somewhere around minimum wage at $8 to $9 an hour.
Regardless of what their income is, the jail also keeps 35 percent of it, which is still less than the 40 percent jails are allowed to retain under Alabama law. That money is collected to offset the costs of facilitating the program, like the director’s salary, transportation costs and the extra administrative work.
Mercurio said things couldn’t function without Sgt. Marion Critz, who oversees the barracks, and other corrections officers who help process the inmates in and out of the facility every morning and afternoon.
However, as the number of inmates participating has grown, so has the jail’s income from work release. At this point, the program is paying for itself and then some — generating $97,000 for MCSO in 2017 and $229,000 last year. With $248,000 collected through August, 2019 is poised to set records as well.
Cochran said those proceeds, which are maintained by MCSO, go back into the program or to jail operations. Specifically, he said they’ve allowed the office to purchase and maintain vehicles to transport work release inmates and offer a $200-a-month “hazardous duty” pay to MCSO correctional officers.
What the employees keep they can sign out to approved friends and relatives to help support their families or pay their bills. Some save money until their release, but that can be more difficult for others. Miller, who has been in the program since 2017, said he’s glad to be on work release, but his responsibilities on the outside as well as legal fees and court costs have made it difficult to put much of anything away.
“I’ve got four kids and two ex-wives … money goes real quick,” he told Lagniappe. “I still don’t make what I’d make in the real world … and they keep 35 percent of that. I mean, I don’t have the same bills, but I do have bills. My family has still got to function, and I was a family man before I came here.”
Still, Miller said the program has been beneficial and he plans to stay on at his job after he’s released.
“I like the work program, and I think it’s done great things,” he said. “It’s safer in county, especially over here [at the barracks]. You don’t have to worry about somebody coming up and stabbing you 24/7 like you do in the state prison system. They really worry about us over here and keep an eye on things.”
For Mercurio, the program can be a bit personal at times. In a sense, he’s sticking his neck out for a lot of these inmates to get them jobs, and it isn’t always easy to convince employers to take prisoners on. After decades as a cop, though, Mercurio said he likes helping the inmates who are willing to help themselves.
“I always dropped people off at the jail, and you don’t see the other side of it, but I enjoy it. I do,” Mercurio said. “You come here in the morning and you see the spring in their step when they leave — they’re glad to get the hell out of here. They’re making money and being productive instead of sitting here just festering and mad at everything. Because this is a tough place. It really is. It’s not no boys’ club.”
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