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You pay less for garbage because of prison labor. What happens if that all goes away?

Enjoy your cheap monthly garbage fee? Thank an inmate.

During her recent State of the City event, Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson used garbages fees in Columbus to illustrate the impact not having access to inmate labor could have on the city budget but user fees.
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During her recent State of the City event, Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson used garbages fees in Columbus to illustrate the impact not having access to inmate labor could have on the city budget but user fees.

Columbus has the largest prison work camp in the state of Georgia.

On any given weekday, hundreds of prisoners hit the streets to collect trash, clean city buildings, dig ditches, maintain roadways and other locations such as golf courses.

But what would happen if the program, which has existed for more than 135 years, suddenly went away?

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said it’s a real possibility that could have a big impact on your finances.

“You need to understand that our work camp yields about $17 million in value to this city,” she said while answering a question at her last State of the City address. “So right now your garbage fee is $17 a month. That’s because the labor is largely free.

“If the work camps were to go away, you need to start thinking in the range of $32 to $35 a month,” she added. “And that’s just sort of the beginning.”

The Muscogee County Prison has 576 prisoners. Of that amount, 528 are state prisoners and 48 belong to the county.

Prisoners who work on sanitation, golf course, recycling and landfill details earn $3 per day, while those who do jobs such as facility maintenance, street beautification and transportation get nothing, Muscogee County Prison Warden Dwight Hamrick told the Ledger-Enquirer in a previous interview. Those who earn money receive a payment once they're released from prison.

Tomlinson said she became concerned about the future of the work camp two years ago when Hamrick attended a warden meeting in Forsythe, Ga. Many of the wardens wanted more money from the state, which pays county prisons only $20 per day, per prisoner compared to $45 for prisoners at private prisons. The wardens tried unsuccessfully to convince the state to increase the subsidy.

“I guess the message they were sending is, ‘Hey, look, we feel that these work camps are good for prisoners, but we think they’re also good for your communities,’” she said. “‘So if you guys are upset, and want more money, then we’ll find another way to house them. That was the impression that was given.

“So that’s my concern, that if the state is ambivalent about it, and they’re doing all this justice reform, what is our plan B?” she asked.

Columbus officials did not join the effort for a bigger subsidy, the mayor said, because of the amount of money the city saves each year from the program.

“We did not join the discussion really because, one, it just wasn’t on our radar,” she said. “And, two, because to the extent that we thought about it and talked about it all, we realized we get a significant value from the work camp (of $17 million a year). And then the $20 a day was on top of that.”

“We would not have pushed for $20 a day over $45 a day because the value of the work camp is greater to us,” she added.

Concerns about the Muscogee County prison work camp are nothing new. The issue surfaced in 2014 when the Rev. Richard Jessie called the county prison work program "slavery" at a Columbus Council meeting. He received swift rebukes from City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Councilor "Pops" Barnes.

Representatives from the Columbus branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Columbus Black History Museum also have spoken out against the work camp.

At the time, Hugley said he took exception to the suggestion that he, as a black man, would be associated with slavery. He and Barnes, also black, said the program is a benefit to inmates because it teaches them job skills and responsibility.

"What I see, being a department head here and as city manager, is that the prisoner has an opportunity to interact outside the jail with society," Hugley said at the time. "That prisoner gets to gain valuable work experience that will help that person to re-enter society with skills that will hopefully get them some type of employment that won't get them back into the system again.”

But it’s a system that the state may eliminate one day, Tomlinson said last week, and the city needs to be in a financial position to withstand the change if it ever occurs.

“... I think going forward, for future elected officials, I would say that’s something that you need to start planning from now, is how you’re going to replace 600 work camp workers if the time comes.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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