'Chain gang' working at the Capitol

15,000 hours of inmate labor at renovation so far

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 10 2004 12:08 a.m. MDT

A worker from the inmate program leaves an area sealed for asbestos removal at the Capitol. About 30 prisoners make the daily trek to the Capitol renovation site.

Ryan Long, Deseret Morning News

If you've wondered what is behind the massive white curtain that is draped around the state Capitol dome, here's an answer you probably didn't expect:

Prisoners.

And, no, we're not talking about any "inmates-running-the-asylum" political theories that may exist. These are real-live prisoners who split their time behind bars at the Utah State Prison and behind a protective sheet of plastic at the Utah State Capitol.

The dirty jobs of removing asbestos, demolishing walls and moving boxes and furniture have to be done prior to extensive $200 million renovation work at the Capitol, and these prisoners are the chain gang for the assignment.

They are Level 5 prisoners who are nearing parole opportunities and earning incentives by good behavior and work for a program called Utah Corrections Industries. A division of the state's corrections department, the non-funded construction-type business gives qualified prisoners an opportunity to be productive in real-world working situations. They have participated in projects ranging from the Capitol renovation to the 2002 Olympic Athletes Village, said UCI production manager Bryan Wilmot.

About 600 prisoners are involved in the work program, though most of them stay within the prison walls. Thirty inmates make the daily trek to the Capitol accompanied by three corrections officers.

Wilmot believes the work program helps reduce recidivism rates.

"It's a pretty rewarding place to work," Wilmot said. "We're trying to integrate them back into society. You see guys learn some skills so they can get out, and they can make it. On the flip side, we save taxpayers some money."

UCI, operating under the Preservation Board during this project, treats the prisoners like real employees. They have to sign contracts, and they can be fired for doing something as seemingly minor as making an unauthorized phone call.

And they're putting in a yeoman's effort at the Capitol. Since spring, Wilmot said, the inmates have combined to put in 15,000 man hours doing demolition work, asbestos abatement and relocating offices. The savings are "substantial," Wilmot said, adding that his crews can lower the overall price from a third to 50 percent. (They can work only on government projects; nothing in the private sector.)

The biggest cost reduction comes from wage savings. Inmates don't earn a wage per se but are compensated with things such as extra at-home visits and stipends, varying in value from $1 to $1.65 an hour. They also receive intense training, certification, on-the-job experience, contacts and referrals that possibly ready them to begin working as soon as they finish their prison sentences.

New skills

Ernest Cordova, a 24-year-old from Vernal who's in the third year of a four-year term, is taking full advantage of the program. He completed a 40-hour training course to learn the ins and outs of asbestos removal, forklift operation, job safety and other work-related skills. Others become proficient in roofing.

Cordova, who earned his high school diploma and began college while at the Gunnison prison facility, plans on using his new skills in his family's construction business after he's done serving his time. He wants to "be prepared when I hit the streets." His family was really encouraged about this, he said.

In the meantime, he's enjoying the freedom of "being able to wander around and get something done. . . . I feel like I accomplish something." He also laughed when he admitted he had to join the program to get his first tour of the Capitol.

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