This program gives inmates a chance to give back to the community

Inmates have assisted with beach cleanups after events like the Shamrock Marathon. (Southside Daily/courtesy of Virginia Beach Sheriff's Department)
Inmates have assisted with beach cleanups after events like the Shamrock Marathon. (Southside Daily/courtesy of Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Department)

VIRGINIA BEACH — On any given day, motorists driving up and down Princess Anne Road can see people in orange jumpsuits mowing and picking up trash.

That’s a just a portion of what the Inmate Workforce Program participants are doing.

The city’s correctional center started the Inmate Workforce Program in 1990, a program designed for low-risk inmates to be able to contribute to the community while serving out their sentence, said Rocky Holcomb, chief deputy of the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office.

The program has about 35-45 participants a month, depending on the season and the waiting list is long, said Kathy Hieatt, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

Why they do it

Inmates who participate in the program are eager to do so because of the benefits they get from volunteering.

Inmates who volunteer for the program receive additional food, visitation (two visits per week instead of one), TV privileges and can earn time off their sentence (between 3-4.5 days/month).

They also waive the $3/day they are allowed to charge inmates for their room and board under state code, Hieatt said.

“I wish they had more things like it [the program] in the prison,” said Jason Coker, an inmate who has participated with the program since July 2018. “We are treated more like people than inmates.”

Gabriel Cochrane, who has participated in the program for about five and half months, echoed Coker’s sentiments.

“It’s something to do and I like to work,” he said.

They both said they enjoy the fact they get to go outside regularly, putting in active working time rather than sitting in a cell-block inside all day.

“These guys come to us with a lot of skills,” said Sgt. Frank Davis, workforce peer support counselor. “These guys provide a valuable service to us. We need them and we’re glad they’re here.”

Looking to expand

Holcomb would like to see the program expand beyond what it is today.

Currently it has eight contracts with the city for roadside, resort and Municipal Center landscaping, meter easement clearing, janitorial services, pump house and water station painting, event cleanup and other work, according to the sheriff’s office.

This year, the program generated $776,101, which was applied to the city’s obligated share of Correctional Center expenses, according to a report from the sheriff’s office.

The Inmate Workforce volunteered 52,562 hours at a taxpayer savings of $865,720.

By having the contract with the inmate program, the city saves money that would have had to go to a private contractor, Hieatt pointed out.

“The program gives them a chance to feel more human, to give back to the community and to get out of the cell-block,” Davis said.

In order for the program to grow, the sheriff’s office will have to gather more contracts with the city, Holcomb said.

He said he also wants to decrease the stigma associated with the inmates doing work for the community seeing as they’ll be back in the community shortly after their sentence is served.

“These inmates are getting the satisfaction of doing a hard day’s work,” he said, adding he’d like to see the program keep growing to continue providing opportunities for inmates.

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