The Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry resumed their inmate work programs earlier this month after suspending the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ADOC is now bringing crews of incarcerated people to cities, towns and school districts across the state, including Greenlee County.

“Different people have different opinions about using inmate labor, but we’re using them to do good work,” said Eldon Merrell, the superintendent of Duncan Unified School District. “It’ll be good. We’ll get a crew of inmates at a really great rate, and we’ll put them to work.”

Merrell said the school district had a crew of 10 inmates before COVID-19 hit and the program was suspended. This year, the district requested eight inmates to work on construction projects in classrooms during the summer as well as painting and landscaping projects. During the school year, a crew of four inmates will wash and clean school vehicles, as well as landscape things like the football field.

Last year the district had a groundskeeper and a part-time student worker try to cover the jobs that the inmate crews did. Merrell said the district tried to hire somebody to take on one of the positions that the inmates had, but that potential candidates found higher paid positions elsewhere.

“We cannot afford to pay people for that labor. So it’s a huge benefit for us,” Merrell said, “We get all eight for less than it costs to hire one person.”

In Clifton, the sentiment is much the same.

“It’s going to have a very positive effect,” said Clifton Town Manager Rudy Perez, “It’s a great thing to have our inmate labor force back on June 21.”

Eight inmates will work for Clifton’s Public Works Department doing landscaping around Highway 191, while two people will work for the town’s Parks and Recreation Department. One person will trim trees, do weed control, and pick up trash, while another person will work at the North Clifton RV Park doing ground maintenance and repairs with the Park and Recreation Department, Perez said.

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Clifton will pay ADOC $6,000 a year for the two inmates who will work for the Parks and Recreation Department, and $8,000 for the eight inmates who will work for the Public Works Department. Perez said the money used to pay ADOC this year is money that the town saved last year when the work release program was suspended.

If the positions were filled by non-incarcerated people, Perez estimated they’d probably be paid around $15.24 an hour in the Public Works Department.

All the inmates sent out on work release to Clifton will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Perez said.

Inmates will also be required to wear masks while indoors and when close to other people, according to ADOC. The department will also do mandatory wellness screenings for inmates.

Supervisors of the inmates will also be required to wear masks, Perez added.

“We’re using their labor at a very inexpensive rate. If supervisors have to wear masks, that’s fine with us,” Perez said.

Greenlee County Supervisor Derek Rapier said that although the county didn’t have to hire additional workers, he’ll be glad to have the inmates back because the county was forced to reprioritize things a bit. Certain tasks, such as weed pulling, were put on the back burner.

“It’s certainly hampered us not having them,” he said.

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