Atlanta counties look to prison labor to relieve budget pressure

Clayton County has had more than its share of problems in recent years but the one people don’t hear much about is a shortage of prisoners.

The county's prison has had extra cots and warden Frank Smith has been asking the Georgia Department of Corrections to send more prisoners to use for work details -- ranging from picking up rubbish to maintaining county vehicles -- for a year and a half, without any luck.

Prison labor stimulates the local economy because the DOC pays the county $20 a day for each prisoner. Even if the cost of housing that inmate is factored in, the 16 extra prisoners requested by Clayton would save the county $317, 485 over the next year, compared to what it would cost to hire workers to do the same jobs, Smith said.

Clayton is one of 24 counties in Georgia with prisons that house about 5,000 prisoners, according to the DOC Web site, and Clayton isn't the only one in metro Atlanta looking for economic relief from state prisoners.

Gwinnett County has space for about 513 prisoners and a prison population of about 400. So far,  the prison hasn’t requested more state prisoners, but it is something under consideration, spokesman Lt. Gary Gordijn said.

However, Jimmy Sikes, Spalding County prison warden, said he’s not requesting more prisoners. “We’re full up," Sikes said on Tuesday. "We’ve got 384, and I think only three extra beds.”

Clayton, which has operated a prison using convict labor since 1992, has an agreement with the state to receive a maximum of 226 prisoners. Capacity was expanded to 242 in 2008 when 16 twin bunks were installed in prison dormitories.

Since the Department of Corrections has to pay $20 a day per prisoner and its budget was decreased, it reduced the number of prisoners sent last year to some counties, including Gwinnett. Two weeks ago, Clayton County Commission Eldrin Bell and Smith met with the DOC and the state agreed to send Clayton more prisoners.

“When we first asked, the DOC said they couldn’t afford to pay us the $20 a day,” Smith said. “I think they’ve worked that out.”

Clayton prison already sends about 180 prisoners per day out on work details, saving the county roughly $2.8 million a year – after housing and other costs are factored in – that it would otherwise spend on county payroll.

“It helps offset the costs of county government,” the warden said.

About a dozen inmates work for the Clayton County Water Authority, doing everything from grounds maintenance to equipment repair and maintenance, general manager Michael Thomas said.

The authority isn’t a county department, so it pays the county prison $30 a day for each inmate. Thomas said there are additional costs to supervise the inmates (none have escaped in the last five years said Smith), but it’s still worth it.

Each inmate costs half as much as a regular employee when such things as medical benefits are considered, Thomas estimated.

“Obviously, they’re a lot cheaper than hiring somebody,” Thomas said. “We’re always trying to squeeze a nickel. So it helps.”