PINE BELT (WDAM) - On any given day hundreds of inmates pick up trash along Mississippi roadsides or work on county and state property.
“It saves the county a lot of money, and secondly it teaches work ethic to those inmates,” said Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge.
The work detail they’re assigned to can also be tempting when freedom is right in front of them.
“You cannot predict, because we’ve had an occasion when one runs that actually broke into somebody’s house,” Hodge said regarding inmate behavior.
Hodge started the inmate work detail in Jones County when he took office back in 2008, using mostly pretrial inmates. Since then, he says about 12 decided to take a chance for freedom.
“I don’t think it’s a big problem. When you look at the number of working inmates that we’ve worked since 2008,” said Hodge regarding the walk offs.
To get the most out of the program, Hodge says Jones County sends out about 15 inmates a day during the week. Across the state and Pine Belt, the program has been used for years to service towns, cities and counties.
Some counties use inmate labor more than others. According to the state department of corrections, state inmates must meet certain requirements to be part of it. They must be non-violent offenders in minimum custody with no pending disciplinary actions.
While the labor they provide can be valuable, when inmates take advantage of the opportunity, it ends up costing taxpayers.
“The good far outweighs the bad and there are risks, again, I’m not denying that there are risks,” said Hodge.
Last June, two inmates walked away from a work detail in Jones County, creating a manhunt for Hodge’s department.
“They were here, picking up trash on the side of Monroe Road. Inmates saw an opportunity and run into the wood line,” said Major Jamie Tedford, who was on the scene that day.
That search also brought in manpower and resources from the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Forrest County and Covington County.
“They are convicted felons. So anytime you take the opportunity to run off, we consider them dangerous,” said Tedford.
Thankfully, it only took about three hours to track them down. But those three hours tied up county resources and money.
To see how big of an issue it is, WDAM began requesting escapee records in August from every Pine Belt county during the last six years. Most counties got back to us quickly.
Two of them, Forrest and Wayne, haven’t gotten back to us at all. Looking at the numbers we did get, since 2013 Pine Belt counties haven’t reported very many walk-offs from those details.
Marion County reported none, Lamar reported three, Perry reported one, Jefferson Davis reported none, Covington reported two, Jasper reported none and Jones reported 12. Jones County gave us records dating back to 2008, not just 2013. In most every case, those inmates were caught the same day.
We also requested numbers from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which reported 13 state inmates that walked off from a work detail, two of them in Forrest County.
Despite the headaches and problems of an inmate walking off, Hodge says the bigger picture shows why counties continue to rely on inmate labor.
“There’s risk involved, but I think the risk is worth the reward,” said Hodge.