- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - There’s another way of breathing free air while serving a jail sentence, but it might involve shoveling livestock feces.

So long as an inmate is eligible, meets specific requirements and is accepted to the program, the inmate can make the time spent in jail feel quicker, and shorter.

Instead of paying a debt to society by sitting in a room with four white walls, a select few are helping out at Cam-plex, maintaining the grounds at the jail, washing government vehicles or completing custodial or cooking work inside the prison.

Residents recognize them by their horizontal black-and-white stripes removing snow in front of the entrance to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office on a cold day. But they never cease to offer a warm welcome to anyone who passes by. The 12 men of Cell Block P and three women in Cell Block J feel fortunate to be part of the program.

It has its advantages, but not everyone can participate.

The inmate work program allows inmates to pay off a portion of their court costs, fines and fees, or even shorten their jail sentence. The day-for-a-day plan, which must be court ordered, is exactly like is sounds. Each day of work reduces their prison term by one day. Inmates can decrease up to half of their time spent in jail through the program. At 40 hours a week and five work days, that can drastically shorten life behind bars.

“I get out sooner than if I would be sitting in a normal cell,” inmate and program participant Weston Weir said. He is serving 180 days for failure to pay fines on multiple DUIs and a traffic ticket. “It also makes the time go by faster. It’s win-win.”

The benefits don’t stop there. Receiving daily snacks, coffee, listening to music, pillow cases, a removable pillow and a daily change of clothes are just some of the secondary amenities.

“Those are the perks,” Cpl. David Brunson said.

He has been in charge of the program for 14 years. He balances authority and comaradery. It’s his responsibility to get to know the inmates, assign them to certain jobs that suit their skills and set the schedule. He also gives the final thumbs up or thumbs down on who can be in the work program.

A typical walk through the jail halls warrants inquiries from a number of inmates.

“If I plead guilty can I?” asks a female inmate with a pending trial as she exits her block.

“I only have one felony,” she implores.

“It’s a privilege and people want to be part of it,” Brunson said.

Moorcroft resident Dylan Carpenter started the program this week. He said it took persistence to be accepted.

“I kept hounding him,” he said.

After three weeks of pleading, Brunson assigned Carpenter to laundry detail. Carpenter is waiting to be sentenced for a misdemeanor charge for unpaid fines and failure to appear.

Getting Brunson’s attention isn’t the only stipulation. To be accepted, inmates must obtain approval from the nurse - they must be physically and mentally fit. They cannot be charged as a violent felon or sex offender. Escape risk or felony stalking also are taken under consideration. There occasionally is the exception for a pending felon, but that is only if they are short-staffed. There now are 15 participants, but there have been as many as 25.

“I feel like I’m helping them,” Brunson said. “A lot of them are strung out on drugs, and this helps them sober up. It’s like a reset button on their life.”

He hopes the program provides a positive mental attitude and cleans up their act. He stresses politeness and a productive work environment, and he discourages cursing. The inmates also receive basic training and protective gear, including safety glasses, dust masks and slip-resistant shoes.

Whether it’s video cameras or officer supervision, the inmates are under constant surveillance while at work.

In Brunson’s 27 years in Campbell County, he can’t remember anyone trying to escape. He also urges the public to not aid the criminals. Attempting to hand off cigarettes or other commodities can result in an extended sentence for the inmate and criminal repercussions for anyone trying to aid them.

Hearld Rank is serving 66 days after turning himself in for failure to pay two DUI fines. He is grateful for the work program opportunity.

“I think it’s a really good deal if you want to do something besides sleep all day,” he said. “The men at Cam-plex are a good crew and not judgmental.”

Cam-plex operations manager Greg Rook has no reservations working with the inmates and gives it no second thought.

“It’s a great program that reduces our labor costs,” Rook said.

He said the partnership has existed for at least 20 years. He’s heard from the public that they like seeing the inmates out and working. Typical labor at Cam-plex includes cleaning stalls, picking up trash, setting up fences or spreading sawdust.

Rank said residents shouldn’t let the jail clothes and physical labor like cleaning out livestock stalls give them the wrong impression.

“Just because we wear stripes doesn’t mean we are violent or angry or trying to get away with something.”

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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