Virginia to allow prisoners to maintain rest stops

By Anita Kumar
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 1:17 PM

IN RICHMOND Inmates in Virginia prisons learn to grow vegetables, care for horses and cook as they prepare for life outside bars.

Now lawmakers want them to take some of their new skills - in this case, gardening and roofing - and use them to maintain some of the state's 41 rest stops.

Lawmakers, who just completed their annual legislative session, passed a bill allowing inmates to maintain Virginia's rest stops, one of several initiatives about prisoner reentry efforts in Virginia that legislators debated.

With almost a third of the state's inmates returning to prison within three years of their release, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has made prisoner reentry one of the top priorities of his administration.

He appointed the state's first prisoner reentry coordinator and created an advisory council to study ways for state, private and faith-based groups to better plan for a prisoner's return to society. More than 10,000 inmates are released from Virginia prisons each year.

McDonnell has said the programs would not only save government money but also give a second chance to people who have served time.

This year, McDonnell and his staff pushed several bills to help inmates get acclimated to society, but none gained more attention than the one to have them maintain the state's rest stops.

McDonnell made a campaign promise that he would find a cheaper way to maintain the rest stops when he reopened 19 of them, which had been shuttered by former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) to save millions during the economic downturn. Each rest stop costs about $500,000 a year to maintain and keep open.

"We want them to serve their time and then get back in society and be gainfully employed,'' said state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), who introduced the bill. "It not only saves money for the taxpayers, it gives a healthy work outlet for individuals. They can take pride in Virginia.''

Many Democrats opposed the inmates' role, saying it would hurt public safety and Virginia's image. They questioned the supervision, which would be by an armed guard and transportation employee trained to work with inmates.

"We reduced a lot of work programs for inmates a number of years ago because of problems that occurred in the community,'' Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said. "I don't think it would be good for Virginia tourism to have an incident at a rest stop. This is too high a profile, too much visibility, too difficult to supervise."

All the prisoners' work would occur outside, such as maintaining flowers and fixing roofs.

The state currently contracts with three private companies to maintain rest stops: DTH Contract Services of Dunn, N.C., JDM Services of Bastian, Va., and TME Enterprises of Chesapeake. Virginia's annual property management contracts total about $13.4 million, state officials said.

The state would pay the Department of Corrections $1.50 an hour per inmate.

McDonnell has signed the bill into law. It will go into effect July 1.

Legislators also overwhelmingly approved bills requiring that the state to create a personal trust account for each inmate to help them save money until they leave prison and to offer to test inmates for HIV before release.

But they fought an attempt to change a program helpful to inmates learning to print that now requires colleges and universities to use prison printing services, if possible.

After receiving a request from nearby Christopher Newport University, Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News) said, he introduced a bill that would allow the schools to accept the lowest bid.

"I have nothing against teaching inmates a trade,'' Miller said. "I think we ought to be doing that. But I think we ought not to be doing that at the expense of taking jobs away from the private sector and also overspending on things we could save money on.''

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