State News

Litter pickup by NC prisoners poised for scrap heap

Posted June 11

WRAL News

— A common sight for more than 100 years along North Carolina roads — prisoners picking up trash or clearing debris while guards keep close watch — could soon go the way of inmates smashing rocks with sledgehammers into gravel.

The proposed two-year state budget getting negotiated by Republicans this month is almost certain to stop sending $9.5 million to the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice to pay for litter crews and road squads. Both the House and Senate budget proposals included the shift, which means it's unlikely to be removed from the final spending plan.

The work has long been considered a way for the public to know prisoners are contributing to the state and for behaving convicts to leave behind prison fences. The price would seem right too, since they make $1 a day and those payments don't come from taxpayers.

But legislators who oversee transportation spending say that when the number of road miles cleaned up is considered, prisoners are more expensive than contractors, which the Department of Transportation increasingly uses. DOT would retain $9 million to expand contract litter pickup further.

A 2012 study by the Office of State Budget and Management determined a contractor cleaned 31 shoulder miles of road a day. Of four prison litter crews observed by budget analysts, the most any of the crew covered was 4.5 miles per day. The prison crews and squads are often comprised of eight prisoners and one unarmed or two armed correctional officers, depending on the security threat.

While all prisoners must stay within sight of the officers to reduce the threat of escape, contract workers can be dropped off at longer intervals. Prison staff shortages and security concerns also contribute to delays.

"It was too cost prohibitive," said Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, a House transportation budget co-chairman. "I support getting the biggest bang for the buck."

About 1,200 prisoners — 3 percent of the state's prison population — would need to find other work or programs to occupy their time should the budget provisions become law, said Keith Acree, a state prison system spokesman.

The decision also would eliminate 183 correctional officer positions, essentially those that drive the crews and keep an eye on them. One budget-writer said those officers would have to find other duties.

"We're not yet certain what would happen to prison road crews if this measure passed," Acree wrote in an email. A separate program in which people sentenced to community service perform litter pickup would remain.

Inmates have been working on highways and roads since at least an 1887 law, according to the 2012 study. Some lawmakers are worried withholding the funds could mean prisoners are more likely to get into trouble back in prison.

There are "tangible benefits to using prisoners, and the public actually sees a benefit to it because they see inmates who we're housing that are doing something productive," said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and budget-writer on criminal justice matters.

The Department of Transportation has let dozens of litter and mowing contracts that help cover all of the more than 1,300 miles of North Carolina interstates and much of its primary highways. The $9 million should help cover all of the primary highways and increase secondary road cleanups, DOT spokesman Robert Broome said.

The House and Senate would keep open the door slightly for litter pickup by prisoners to continue. It would give the Division of Adult Correction the opportunity to match requirements of the most favorable bid received by DOT from a contractor to perform the work.

"They just need to bring their costs in line with what can get done in the private sector," Torbett said. "We did not tell them no."

10 Comments

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  • Daniel Spencer Jun 11, 7:29 p.m.
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    I have traveled US-1 from Vance County to Raleigh since 2000, & it is disappointing to see the amount of trash that gets discarded along just this one road. And I have rarely seen any clean up crews out there. Then to make matters worse, the mowing contractors come along & mow making a greater mess of the trash already strewn about. You would think there would be some sort of communication to get it cleaned up before the mowers go out.

  • Erika Phipps Jun 11, 6:41 p.m.
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    Yes, four times a year is the way it's SUPPOSED to work, but if they do NOT do so, which is FREQUENTLY the case, it's like pulling teeth to get them to come clean or give up the sign. This happens across the state, and it's a waste of DOT time and money tracking those "something for nothing" Adopt-a-Highway families, churches, organizations, whatever.

  • James Dodson Jun 11, 6:40 p.m.
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    A contractor can clean 30+ miles a day, while the inmate division is only getting 4.5 miles a day....what part of this math do you folks not understand?

  • Nancy Oberman Jun 11, 4:38 p.m.
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    Saving that dollar so it can go in their pocket, one way or another... they REALLY believe contractors getting state money, will be cheaper? Um yea....

  • Kim Khare Jun 11, 1:33 p.m.
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    Most of the garbage on the roads is fast-food remnants and discarded bottles and cans. If NC joined the majority of the eastern states and had a bottle recycling bill, people wouldn't be throwing them away and some people would be out there picking them up.

  • Kathryn Adams Jun 11, 1:19 p.m.
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    I've volunteered with Adopt-a-Highway in this state; an organization is only allowed to keep the sign up if they have at least four clean-ups a year. There still aren't enough organizations volunteering to keep up with the garbage though; I'd look to see which contract agency they hire to replace prisoners, since it's likely going to be owned by one of the upstanding politicians who pushed through this change.

    Also, while people throwing stuff out their windows is a problem, the worst offenders are people with pick-up trucks who use the truck bed for a garbage can while they're working, and then drive off and allow all the piled-up trash to blow away.

  • Thomas Fenske Jun 11, 1:01 p.m.
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    This program obviously is about more than simple money, so this seems like a short-sighted change. What is it about idle hands? Too many idle hands in prison.

  • Erika Phipps Jun 11, 11:58 a.m.
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    The prisoners were the best thing that ever happened to my area, and I bet they'll never litter having seen the worst that "upstanding" citizens can throw from their car windows. Adopt-A-Highway needs to be scrapped for sure. People use it to promote themselves and their causes, but out here they just put a bow on the sign every holiday and clean once a year or less. Granted, the people littering should be punished, but law enforcement doesn't have time for that, even when there's proof.

  • Jeff Freuler Jun 11, 11:44 a.m.
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    This will lead to litter not being picked up in rural counties and only the shoulders of the road along interstate corridors.

    The secondary roads in Vance county are covered with litter that has been needed to be picked up for a long time now

  • Tom Harris Jun 11, 11:07 a.m.
    user avatar

    I just hope this doesn't result in less litter being picked up. NC's roads are some of the most littered I have seen anywhere, and should be an embarrassment for all NC citizens.