By Brandi Makuski
Sheriff Mike Lukas on Friday began the first of what he hopes are many inmate work crews — part of his effort to keep prisoners at the Portage Co. Jail occupied with projects that give back to the community.
The first work crew, comprised of six inmates, was put to work picking up trash on Sept. 30 along the roadway of State Highway 54 for about two hours.
Low-risk inmates at the jail who are eligible to Huber work release can participate in the program, Lukas said, and accumulate “good time” for volunteering. Rather than being paid for their time, inmates receive one day off their sentence for every 12 hours of work.
Lukas said the work would alleviate some of the stress on the county’s highway dept., as well as save the taxpayers money, though he didn’t have an estimated figure.
“I’d like to see as many inmates as possible do this,” Lukas said. “The problem is, we don’t have the manpower to bring them out all the time.”
Lukas said there are “plenty of projects” throughout the county the inmate crews could be working on, but with an enforced inmate-to-deputy ratio of 2:1, it’s not always possible.
“We’re doing something to help the community, but we’re also lifting the spirits of some inmates who otherwise would be sitting in a concrete cubicle all day,” Lukas added.
Chief Deputy Dan Kontos said the idea of an inmate work crew has been a topic of discussion for some time throughout the sheriff’s office.
“The idea probably came up in the first three months of Sheriff Lukas taking office,” Kontos said. “To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t a high priority — we didn’t want to put other projects at risk to start this one.”
Kontos added the inmate work crew will “always be a low priority”, and will take a back seat to more important things happening in the sheriff’s office.
But being part of an inmate work crew is a privilege, Lukas said — one that can be taken away.
“I talked to them before we came out here — if there’s any monkey business out here, they will not be utilized for this anymore, and their good time will be taken away,” he said. “I can guarantee you that where ever they are, they will be well guarded and residents will be secure.
Lukas added passing motorists also have a degree of responsibility when they see an inmate work crew along the roadside.
“Just like with a construction zone, just like when they drive by an officer with his lights on, it’s the same situation,” Lukas said. “It’s a ‘move over, slow-down’ atmosphere.”
Lukas said inmate work zones are clearly marked with signs and squad cars.
“We have full enforcement for those who don’t slow down,” Lukas added. “It’s all about safety for the inmates, our officers and the public when we do this.”