Your shop is absolutely swamped. Your technicians simply can’t keep up with the work — and you wish you had more available labor. While many fleets outsource some of the work to a dealership or repair center, others are leveraging labor from local correctional institutions. By hiring inmates to do some of the more basic shop tasks, full-time technicians can focus on their jobs and improve productivity.
How does it work? And what are the outcomes? Two fleets share their experiences.
Chesapeake’s Program Focuses on Small Equipment
The City of Chesapeake, Va., inmate labor program started more than 20 years ago in the city garage, where the city uses inmate labor to operate the wash rack, assist in shop cleaning, provide labor assistance to technicians needing an extra hand repairing vehicles, and repair small equipment.
As part of the program, the City of Chesapeake partnered with the Sheriff’s Department to teach small equipment repair to a select class of four inmates at a time. The participants are paired with a city technician and a deputy who has been trained by outdoor power equipment manufacturer Stihl; together, they provide inmates hands-on and classroom instruction on small equipment repair. The inmates also watch Stihl training videos. Upon graduating from the program, participants receive Stihl Bronze Certification.
During the program, inmates perform preventive maintenance and basic repairs on small equipment such as lawn mowers, pumps, asphalt rollers, plate tampers, and handheld equipment like string trimmers, chainsaws, hedge trimmers, and blowers.
Leveraging inmate labor has significantly cut turnaround time and at zero cost. “All of the city’s small equipment is now repaired by that crew,” said George Hrichak, CEM, CPFP, fleet manager for the city. “We had one technician working that segment of 987 pieces of equipment in the fleet and the turn-around time was about 16 days. Now, with the inmate crew, the turnaround time is about six days.”
The City of Chesapeake has yet to hire any inmates, but several have been hired by other city departments. “They’ve done extremely well in their new careers,” Hrichak said.
Jackson County’s Diverse Inmate Work Program
Working in coordination with the Jackson County Correctional Institution, the Jackson County, Ga., Fleet Maintenance department leverages inmate labor in a multitude of ways. These include general labor, shop cleanup, servicing and maintaining equipment with small engines, paint and body repair, welding and fabrication, light-duty vehicle repairs and service, heavy-duty equipment repair and service, as well as specialty vehicle repair and maintenance. Inmates also make service call runs to assist with roadside repairs.
The Jackson County Correctional Institution leases inmates to provide services at no cost to Fleet Maintenance. There are currently 10 leased inmates working at the shop. One stand-out inmate, now in a transitional facility, has become a full-time employee.
“He had performed specialty work for the facility for enough time that I could tell he was a good individual, talented in his field, and had saved this county a bundle over the years,” said Greg McDonald, fleet maintenance superintendent. “We needed his expertise enough that the idea came about to see if I could hire him on at Fleet Maintenance with us for his services. He plans to stay with us upon full release.”
How Inmates Are Selected
Selecting inmates to work in the shop works a little differently than the traditional hiring process. For the City of Chesapeake, inmates must apply in writing to the Sheriff’s Office for work force participation. After applying, their records are reviewed to make sure they’re not incarcerated for violent crimes and that they meet work force standards.
For the Chesapeake Small Equipment Shop, a multiple-choice test is also given to determine the inmate’s basic small engine knowledge. Then, the top-scoring candidates are selected to enter the training program.
At Jackson County, leased inmates go through a classification process where they describe their skills or the skills they would like to acquire. The decision on whether they are able to participate is ultimately made by the Correctional Institution. Upon completion of this initial process, inmates are sent to the Jackson County Fleet Maintenance facility on a trial basis.
“We assess their skill sets and/or desired skill sets and assign them work accordingly,” McDonald said.
Training & Managing Inmate Workers
Once inmates are chosen to work for the fleet, training is an essential next step. McDonald said at Jackson County, many participants come in with some basic knowledge or have shop-related experience. These participants get hands-on training, working side-by-side with a full-time service technician. If there is a skill they don’t know, the technician demonstrates the proper technique.
“Every shop is different, so initially there is a period where participants have to learn to use some of the specialty equipment we use,” McDonald said. “We have had many participants come in knowledgeable in only one specific field and are released with knowledge in several.”
In the Chesapeake Small Equipment Shop, a deputy is responsible for participants’ safety and behavior from the time they leave their pod until they return. The shop technician assigns work based upon the inmate’s strengths, and he provides feedback and verifies the work is performed properly before the unit leaves the shop.
At Chesapeake, safety training is first on the docket, ensuring participants understand the tasks with which they are charged and how to perform them in a safe and secure manner. “We use inmates at our facility to perform environmental tasks such as waste oil/antifreeze disposal, used fuel and gas filter crushing and disposal, aerosol can recycling, and wheel-weight recycling,” said David Gauthier, fleet safety specialist. “In the Small Equipment Shop, inmates start with basic shop practices, personal protective equipment, and safety training.”
For handheld equipment repair training, the main method of training is Stihl computer-based training. For other equipment, inmates use repair manuals and instruction directly from the fleet technician or the deputy. The assigned deputy is also a certified Stihl instructor and provides additional guidance. “Inmates perform manufacturers’ scheduled services and repairs up to the individual skill level on our equipment,” said Bert Dixon, automotive technician III.
In the past, the city hired a sheriff’s deputy to manage the four to five inmates who were on site daily working at the fleet garage. With just one inmate on site now, that individual is managed and mentored by Gauthier.
The Benefits to Fleet
The most obvious benefits of inmate labor programs are the free labor and improved technician productivity. “I want my technicians working on vehicles, that’s how I keep my customers happy,” Hrichak said. “Having inmates perform the other functions means my technicians can focus on performing their primary task.”
But the City of Chesapeake has also seen cost savings thanks to available inmate labor. For instance, using inmates to wash vehicles instead of using the commercial car wash saved the city approximately $58,000 a year.
Hrichak said inmates can also make for great employees. “Inmates, in some cases, could be a better fit than non-incarcerated employees,” he said. “These men (we haven’t had any women apply for the program) come to work on time, are drug-free, not distracted by cell phones, and cannot steal, thanks to the assigned deputy.”
McDonald agrees that inmate labor programs offer the rare opportunity to fully vet potential employees while also benefitting from the additional manpower. “We have the opportunity to weed out the good from the bad and have more than just a 90- to 180-day probationary period to judge their character and judge their skill sets,” he said. “From an employer’s standpoint, this is definitely the start of something that could benefit many entities, as the search for good employees can be harder than the jobs themselves.”