Laborers work goes to inmates at Waupun
Last year Laborers won a major victory when demolition work on public projects was finally covered under state prevailing wage law. The law change was a vast improvement over the old law which limited coverage to demolition work performed to facilitate new construction.
However, if a scheduled $5.1 million project at the Waupun Correctional Institution is any indication, Laborers should not expect to see much demolition work if it involves Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities.
The project at Waupun includes the demolition of 448 existing cell fronts, including all cell doors and locking devices in four cell halls, to be completed in phases with the demolition extending over a period of up to a year and a half.
While the project has not yet been awarded and funding is contingent on passage of the state budget, the DOC has already made the decision not to bid work out, but to use inmate labor instead.
The estimated $1.5 million cost for the demolition would have easily qualified the job as prevailing wage work.
However, the Department of Corrections, like all state agencies, is not required to bid this work out. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, inmates will be doing the demolition under what is called institutional maintenance, in much the same way inmates might do kitchen or ground maintenance work. DOC has the discretion to use in-house labor to maintain, repair and renovate its facilities. Unlike other state agencies, the Department, in addition to tapping its paid-workforce, can also tap inmates to perform or support this in-house work.
According to Sam Calvin, Project Manager for the Department of Corrections, the decision to use inmate labor is not made lightly. Many factors, ranging from the physical location of the project to the expertise of the inmates, are considered before putting inmates to work.
At Fox Lake Correctional we have a painting training program, so if we had a painting project at Fox Lake we would have the expertise to do the project, Calvin said. At Waupun we feel we have the expertise to do the demolition.
However, this particular in-house project calls for the hiring of Limited Term Employees (LTE) to supervise the demolition work because, as one corrections official put it, our (DOC) staff isnt trained to do the work.
Information contained in a June DOC Request for Building Commission Action raises more questions about the level of in-house expertise. In addition to covering the costs of hiring LTEs to supervise the demolition work, the up to $270,000 line item in the project budget for demolition will also be used to cover all necessary tools and equipment required to do the work.
Absent supervisory staff and necessary equipment, it is difficult to gauge from the request how the inmates at Waupun would have gained the expertise to perform the demolition work.
Cost is another factor that DOC considers when deciding to use inmates on proposed projects. Demolition work is labor intensive. The Department estimates it will save taxpayers over $1 million dollars by having inmates perform the work and warns that without that cost savings the whole project, including the portion contracted out for the reconstruction of the cell fronts and installation of the doors and locks, would be halted because of budget constraints.
DOCs decision to do demolition work in-house by hiring outside LTE staff to supervise the project may also save the Department in labor costs. While it is unclear what hourly rate LTE staff will receive, they will be limited to 1040 hour of work in a year and will not qualify for full health and pension benefits.Perhaps the most pressing and serious factor guiding DOCs decision to use prison labor has to do with the over-crowding conditions at Waupun and the problem of inmate idleness. As of September 19, there were 1225 prisoners at Waupun, a maximum security prison built to house just over 800 inmates. Inmate idleness is an acute problem throughout the maximum security system, affecting 3,000 maximum security inmates statewide.
That mix of severe over crowding and inmate idleness is a recipe for disaster for both inmates and corrections staff. Inmate idleness and overcrowding was to blame for a 1983 prison riot at Waupun which caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the facility and threatened the personal safety of many correction officers and staff.
All of this creates a dilemma for Laborers, who understand the need to keep prisoners busy during their incarceration, but who often become the victims of lost work opportunities in the process.
In many cases, work performed by inmates is done under the review or oversight of Badger State Industries or the Private Sector Prison Labor program. Both programs have procedures in place that to some extent protect private sector workers from being displaced and private businesses from facing unfair competition that results from the use of low-wage prison labor.
Unfortunately for Laborers and other building trades workers, of all the factors the Department considers before putting prisoners to work within its facilities to do institutional maintenance, the impact on private sector workers is not among them.
The state budget has passed and assuming the demolition project at Waupun goes forward, there may be an option for law-abiding laborers with demolition experience who might find themselves laid off as the construction season winds down in the Fox Valley this Winter.
As one corrections official noted, They can apply for the LTE supervisor position. We might be able to use them.
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