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Working to be free

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Tim Kerns, 21, left, and Matt Siksay, 30, both of Front Royal, mark a line around the pitcher’s mound on a playing field inside Bing Crosby Park in Front Royal early this week. The Warren County Parks and Recreation Department has a labor program assigning work release inmates and trusties to various short-and long-term projects. If charged with a misdemeanor, inmates can get some time shaved of their sentence. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Work release inmate Billy J. Huffman, 47, of Strasburg, saws a piece of pressure-treated wood at Chimney Fields Park in Front Royal. Huffman has been helping Warren County Parks and Recreation crews with building new dugouts at the softball park as part of an inmate labor program. Rich Cooley/Daily

Program allows some inmates to provide labor in exchange for shaving time off sentences

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- After one year of using inmate labor for various projects, Warren County officials say that well over $100,000 has been saved in associated costs.

As maintenance supervisor for the county Parks and Recreation Department, Harry Kisner Jr. has had plenty of time to see just how beneficial the program can be. About a year ago, the department found itself short of money and hired help, but the need for maintenance around the county was still great.

"We needed labor that just wasn't available," Kisner said.

Both work release inmates and trusties were assigned to various long- and short-term projects. Inmates in the work release program would normally go out to a paying job, but Kisner says the economy wasn't making that possible. Unless they can find a job, the participants work 40 hours a week doing manual labor for the county.

They are not paid, but if charged with a misdemeanor, inmates can get a day off their sentence for every day worked.

A year later, Kisner says inmates have saved his department up to $120,000 that would otherwise be spent on paying seasonal workers. Many of the inmates come into the projects with a construction or maintenance background, he said.

"We've even had a few guys come up with better ideas and solutions than we had," Kisner said.

Matt Siksay, 30, is one work release inmate who was charged with a misdemeanor. Now that he's been working with Parks and Recreation for about a month, he's looking at an earlier release date than the one originally scheduled for early March.

While Siksay didn't have a comment about the program, he agreed that a bad day at work was still better than a good day in jail.

Siksay is currently working to prepare Champion 53 Field in Gertrude E. Miller Park for the upcoming baseball season. He and other inmates have worked on several projects over the past year, including a shelter at Linden Park, tree planting, installing playground equipment, and restoration of the McKay house. Almost all the work done on the skate park was done by inmates, said Kisner.

"It gives the taxpayers something in return," Kisner said of the free labor.

Kisner noted that he hasn't received any complaints about the working inmates, except concerns about "guys in orange jumpsuits being around a playground." Because of that, work release inmates dress in gray jumpsuits, while trusties remain in orange. Inmates in orange are more heavily supervised and require transportation in one of the Sheriff's Office's vehicles, Kisner said.

Billy Huffman, 47, has been in the work release program since October and is highly skilled in carpentry and electrical work, Kisner said.

Huffman enjoys the program, because "I can keep my skills honed, I'm not just sitting around and I get to meet a lot of good people," he said. This will be Huffman's third year tending to a 2-acre garden on the Fishnet property.

The garden produces a variety of vegetables and some fruit, which goes back to the inmates, and saved about $15,000 in food last year, according to Sheriff Daniel McEathron. He said it also helps teach inmates management skills.

Deputy County Administrator Bob Childress said inmates labor has saved roughly $2,500 in road maintenance.

"This has truly been a lifesaver," Kisner said, adding that many of the projects completed by his department were successful because of inmate labor.

"It's a really good program," McEathron said. "It's definitely been a win-win situation."

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