Clarification to This Article
An earlier version of this story said the inmates Fairfax County uses for outdoor labor wear orange vests. They also wear green vests.

Fairfax chain gangs fill gaps for cash-strapped DOT

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010

The vest-wearing, lawn-mower-pushing members of Fairfax County's modern chain gang don't look like jail inmates. Well-disciplined landscapers, yes. Orderly weed-whackers, perhaps. But not convicts. There are no chains, no handcuffs, no black-and-white striped jumpsuits. Just a handful of suntanned men wearing uniforms.

But take a closer look, and you'll see the tell-tale signs that these aren't your normal grass cutters -- the faded gang tattoos, the jail-issued plastic ID bracelets, the armed sheriff's deputy patrolling nearby. Still, confusion is inevitable.

"We get a lot of people asking us for business cards, and we have to point to our sheriff's office logo and say, 'Sorry,' " said Sheriff's Deputy Michael Pence, as he watched a handful of inmates mow grass on a recent Friday near a county office building in McLean.

The inmates assigned to the 40-person crew on the Fairfax County Jail's Community Labor Force take care of lawns, pick up trash and paint over graffiti at roughly 50 county facilities, 300 bus shelters and nearly a dozen park-and-ride Metro stations.

The roadside chain gangs of the early 20th century, known through Sam Cooke's song and images of shackled, segregated work crews in the South, fell out of favor in the 1930s. But many local governments and states, including Maryland and Virginia, employ inmates to work in a host of money-earning public and private services. About 2,000 inmates in Maryland make everything from furniture and license plates to food products, and Virginia prison crews maintain rural highways through a contract. Revenue made through the program helps offset what it costs to feed inmates.

But over the past two years, Fairfax's quickly expanding program has taken on a new role: that of an unofficial complement to the cash-strapped Virginia Department of Transportation. County officials, facing an increasing number of phone calls from constituents upset about overgrown highway medians and poorly kept roads, have tasked the sheriff's office with a new variety of jobs.

The Great Depression forced many governments to turn over road construction projects to the rising number of jobless, said Alex Lichtenstein, an associate professor of history at Florida International University and author of "Twice the Work of Free Labor," which chronicles the history of prison labor in the South. "It's interesting to see the trend reversing," he said.

Nearly half of Fairfax's landscaping contracts go to the jail program. In fairly visible portions of Baileys Crossroads and downtown McLean, groups of about six inmates are noticeable enough to warrant the occasional honk from motorists and "thank-you"s from passersby.

During the February snowstorms, many parents saw the inmates working to remove several feet of snow from school sidewalks and offered their thanks by delivering coffee and doughnuts.

"It makes you feel good, like you're doing something positive," said Howard Fritts, 43, who was released this month after serving five months in the Fairfax jail for a parole violation stemming from a bad-check conviction in 2003.

Fritts, who is from Purcellville, said the tangible benefits don't hurt, either. Aside from getting a month off his sentence, he wrote a 50-page business plan for a new interior design company while in jail -- an idea he dreamed up while working outside -- after meeting a white-collar criminal in a nearby cell.

"It doesn't pay, but you could say it pays in other ways," Fritts said. Inmates who have met each other through the program have also been known to form informal networks after their release.

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