Harrison Co concerned about losing free inmate labor program

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Some Harrison County officials are wondering if the state inmate work center in Gulfport could be next on the chopping block. To save money, the state Department of Corrections is planning to close four work centers in Mississippi. Although the Harrison County site is safe for now, there's still concern about its eventual fate.

The buzz of a weed eater broke the silence at Mississippi City Cemetery in Gulfport Thursday. This week, ten state inmates are sprucing up the grounds and cleaning around the graves. The men are among 102 non-violent offenders housed at the Harrison County Community Work Center on 8th Avenue.

As part of the voluntary program, the inmates spend eight hours a day helping the county with grounds maintenance, trash pickups, building projects, and janitorial services.

"It's very important. We have to have it, the way they take care of the park and the fairgrounds. It's just unbelievable how much they help us," said Raymond Cuevas, Harrison County Fairgrounds, Parks and Recreation Director.

Their services save the county more than $250,000 a year. It's free labor some county officials are worried they may lose if the MDOC makes more budget cuts.

"I'm very concerned. We want them to stay here as long as we can keep them, because it's a big asset to Harrison County and the cities. The ones that are closing, it's a terrible thing because they miss the help too," said Cuevas.

State inmate labor also saves the state about $1.5 million a year.

"A lot of the offenders we do have are very skilled laborers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, air conditioning repair, which is very beneficial, not only to the state, but the counties and communities where they can do that kind of repair work at little or no cost," said Ken Valentine, Regional Community Corrections Director.

Corrections officials say the work center program also helps the inmates by allowing them to perform community service. They also learn skills that help integrate them back into society.

"It certainly does help prevent that turnaround, of course, by teaching them some work skills they don't otherwise have," said Valentine. "We also have an adult basic education program where they can obtain their GEDs while they're in these programs, alcohol and drug programs to help them with those things, as well. So we're trying to provide them with as many services to help improve them, rehabilitate them."

The four work centers that are affected by the cuts, including the program in George County, are slated to close July 15.

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