GREENFIELD — Laundry has been part of Sam Rifner’s chore list since he was about 12 years old. At that age, it was a few loads a week, and a lot fewer loads of orange.
Now that Rifner has taken up residence in the Hancock County Jail, laundry has become a daily activity. He washes, folds and organizes the distinct uniforms of his fellow inmates, a duty he has taken on as part of a jail program aimed at empowering prisoners.
In this long-running initiative, a handful of well-behaved, minimum-security inmates are given the opportunity to perform certain tasks around the jail in exchange for special privileges, said Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Craig, who heads the jail division for the department.
Currently, six inmates participate in the program, Craig said. They work in the facility’s kitchen, dishing up and passing out food; in the laundry room, handling the clothes and property of other inmates; and doing general maintenance, such as changing light bulbs and tending to clogged pipes.
Their work helps the county save a small amount on labor costs each year and goes a long way toward promoting positive interactions between jailers and inmates.
For Rifner, who is serving time after being convicted in a theft case, it’s a way to stay busy. Working makes it feel like his time in custody is going by faster, he said.
“A lot of what we do to get in here goes against the community,” Rifner said. “This is a chance for us to give back to some degree; it feels like we’re giving back.”
The program has been in place through generations of Hancock County leaders, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said. The inmates volunteer to participate but are selected by department staff based on their criminal history and behavior while behind bars.
Craig said the inmates who participate in the program often fall into certain categories: some are non-violent offenders, jailed for shorter periods of time; some are serving longer sentences and are therefore more inclined to make their stays in the jail more enjoyable; others are “frequent-fliers” like Rifner, whom jailers have come to know well and consider dependable.
A participating inmate’s work around the jail comes with perks, Craig said. They are housed in a separate, more communal-style wing of the jail, with larger bunks and bathrooms with increased privacy. They also get a bigger helping of their favorite foods at meal time.
The inmate’s sentences are not decreased as a result of their service; however, they learn basic job skills that could aid them when they leave — being reliable, completing tasks, respecting authority.
The program does come with some risks: there is always potential that an inmate will take advantage of the jailers’ trust, Craig said. These risks have caused the jail staff to scale back the program significantly in recent years.
As part of the program, inmates were once allowed to mow lawns on county-owned property, do maintenance work in the courthouse and pick up trash along highways, often with little to no supervision. They were also given access to tools that could have been used as weapons.
In 2007, two inmates escaped jail custody while working outside the facility. About five hours passed before officers realized the two were missing. The inmates were re-arrested and charged with escape.
Officers also began to fear the lack of oversight led to contraband, including drugs and cigarettes, being smuggled into the jail.
“Somebody could easily leave a package behind a rock near the courthouse, and (the inmate) would find a way to bring it in with them,” Craig said.
The risk became greater than the reward, Shepherd said. When he took office in 2010, his administration scaled back the program in order to make it more secure while still allowing inmates to positively contribute.
Now, even though the jail’s ward can house 17 inmates, only a half dozen are allowed to participate. The jail now employs one part-time maintenance worker to fill the gaps of work inmates once did, Shepherd said. The inmates are not allowed outside of the jail, and they are supervised by trained staff at all times.
It doesn’t look like those extended privileges will be returned to inmates anytime soon, Craig said, because the liability is too great.
But if those inmates who choose to participate continue to be reliable, the jailers are happy to let the program continue in its current form.
“It has potential benefits (for both the inmates and jail staff) as long as we have the manpower to oversee it,” Craig said.
The program at the Hancock County Jail lets inmates volunteer to do chores around the jail in exchange for certain privileges. A handful of prisoners help out the in the facility’s kitchen and laundry room, and performing general maintenance. In return, the inmates are housed in a less-populated wind of the jail and are given larger servings at mealtimes.
“A lot of what we do to get in here (works) against the community. This is a chance for us to give back to some degree; it feels like we’re giving back.”
– Sam Rifner, a participant in the program