When Mayor Dwight C. Jones appointed a special schools task force last fall to press Richmond Public Schools on its budget, he called on school leaders to stop budget overruns. But Jones' desire to arrest spending has gotten a literal interpretation from his own administration — using low-risk inmates to perform maintenance projects on school grounds. And school officlals said they were unaware of the situation.
After months of acrimony between schools and city administration, the district agreed to some of the task forces’ suggestions to reduce costs — among them, the city’s public works department began handling some grounds maintenance at city schools. Earlier this month, Richmond magazine received an anonymous tip that the city was using city jail inmates to provide maintenance at George Mason Elementary School.
And last week, Sharon R. North, public information manager with the Richmond Department of Public Works, confirmed that the city had in some cases been using inmates on schools projects.
“According to [Deputy Chief Administrator] Chris Beschler, we do occasionally use minimal-risk inmates for grounds upkeep,” North confirmed in an email, affirming that “this practice is legal.”
The practice, she wrote, employs inmates from the jail’s Outside Workforce program who meet specific requirements meant to mitigate any perceived risk that might come with using convicts on schools projects. Among those requirements are that the inmates have already been sentenced, are nonviolent, are not sex offenders or convicted of crimes against children.
In fact, the Outside Workforce program is authorized by state law that allows localities and the state to “mobilize workforces” made up of low-risk prisoners to provide labor on public projects.
Other districts around the state occasionally use inmates on schools projects, including Henrico County, where low-risk jail inmates were used to paint parts of Moody Middle School this summer. But, says Henrico Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson, that program was overseen personally by the school principal, and it was known that there were no children on the grounds at the time
By contrast, the use of prisoners on schools projects comes as a surprise to Richmond Public Schools officials, who say they were unaware of the city’s practice before they were contacted by Richmond magazine.
“This is the first we’re hearing of this, and we’re going to have to inquire further of the city,” said Felicia Cosby, a Richmond Schools spokeswoman, who suggested the district prefers to err on the side of caution in its hiring practices. “We have not engaged in that practice before."
Richmond schools currently are on summer break, but Cosby says no efforts were made by city officials to coordinate with schools officials to ensure facilities were not being used for summer programs. Additionally, many school playgrounds are used by the general public after school hours.