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Inmate work program benefits communities across The County

HOULTON, Maine — For the past five years, the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office has operated a program that has given back to the community while saving taxpayers money. 

The office has found much success in the establishment of the inmate work program at the Aroostook County Jail, acting Sheriff Shawn Gillen said on Friday. As part of the effort, participating inmates have worked at numerous projects across the region while also earning time off their sentences.

“We have really had a lot of success with this,” said Gillen of the program started under the leadership of former Sheriff Darrell Crandall. “Not only have our inmates gained things from this, but it is very popular with non-profit organizations who are grateful for the assistance.”

As part of the program, qualified inmates are sent out to work for various communities and non-profit organizations, such as Catholic Charities of Maine, that request their help.

Those who qualify must be minimum security inmates who have been sentenced for their crime. They cannot be convicted sex offenders or have been convicted of domestic violence or any violent crime. A requirement of the program is that inmates must be under direct supervision.

“In total, from July 2017 to July 2018, 57 inmates in the program worked 8,481 hours,” said Gillen. “With minimum wage currently $10 an hour, that is a savings of $84,810 to local organizations.”

In 2016, 8,900 hours of labor was donated.

Finding inmates who qualify can be a challenge, Gillen said on Friday.

“Most of the inmates here are pre-trial,” he said. “That is an estimated 80 percent of our inmates. So it is hard sometimes to find people, but when people qualify and you ask them if they want to do it, very few people say no.”

The inmates have done clean-up projects in Smyrna, Merrill, Fort Fairfield and Island Falls. They have picked rocks off of roads, collected trash in local communities and painted fire hydrants. A number of inmates have worked with Dixie Shaw, director of Catholic Charities Hunger and Relief Services, delivering food packages to the elderly and helping out at the agencies’ farm, thrift stores, and food banks located throughout the County.

Gillen added that Shaw has been a tremendous asset to the program.

“She is fantastic,” he said. “She works them as hard as she works and she also is great with them, letting them know that she doesn’t want to see them incarcerated again. Some of the inmates have even gone back to volunteer for her again after they have been released.”

Gillen acknowledged that most of the inmates working outside of the jail are male due to regulations.

“We have fewer female inmates allowed in the program because they have to be separated from the males,” he said. “So we tend to use them inside the facility as much as possible.”

Inmates who volunteer don’t get paid anything but see a reduction in their sentences. For every two full days an individual works, one day is removed from his jail sentence.

Gillen said that the only issue that has ever occurred with inmates on an assignment occurred last year, when two inmates at the jail walked away from their work assignment at Friends of Aroostook in Houlton. They returned ten minutes later after police said they borrowed a truck and stole a large cigarette disposal bin filled with butts. The two were charged with several crimes in connection with the incident.

The jail’s partnership with Friends of Aroostook, which used inmate workers to help plant and harvest vegetables, was then terminated because the inmates had not been adequately supervised.

“We really have a nice partnership going with organizations across The County,” Whalen said. “It is a benefit to all involved.”

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