An Old Idea Might Work this Time

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Press gangs and inmate labor used for community projects are old ideas, even older than the United States as a country. Modern standards of prisoner rights and reform shy away from the slave-like status of prisoners being worked in demeaning jobs – the old “breakin’ rocks in the hot sun” of the song lyrics – and being able to work is a privilege at many institutions.

Georgia has taken it a bit further than most with one county proposing that prisoners be used in the fire department to help paid firefighters. The idea is appealing on many levels. First of all, non-violent drug offenders (or other non-violent criminals) could use the opportunity to perform useful work and get “good time” with a sentence reduction. The local government gets a low cost worker in times of economic hardship. And perhaps most importantly, prisoners get a change to prove themselves worthwhile – something not to be underestimated in a system where there are few ways to show you’ve changed your attitude.

An article from ABC News tells how Camden County intends to put two inmates in each of three fire stations. The driving force seems to be budget considerations, with a projected savings to the county of about $35,000 over hiring more firefighters and reduce their fire insurance by a whopping half million.

Objections to the plan come from the fire department itself and others. Using inmates may “tarnish” the reputation of the fire department according to some. Others point out that inmates would be put in danger and their agreement to do so is forced by the chance to earn good time.

Not surprisingly, Camden isn’t the first county in Georgia to think of this. In fact, inmate fire fighters are already being employed in the next county over – Sumter.

Chances are that if the new recruits do the job, no one will complain. After all, when your house is on fire, it’s unlikely you’ll take the time to check the credentials of the guy holding the fire hose who is trying to put it out.

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