The men and women on Utah County's "chain gang" could be working more days this summer, with help from the federal government.
The Utah County Sheriff's Office is seeking $112,000 in federal grants to operate its work diversion program this year. That would more than double the program's budget and would allow deputies to operate it every day, rather than just on weekends.Sheriff Dave Bateman said the county created the program to take some pressure off the Utah County Jail, which is especially overcrowded on weekends.
Under the program, Deputy Sheriff Ray Edwards and other deputies take "chain gangs," which actually aren't chained, around the county to work on county or community projects that other county crews haven't been able to get to.
For example, groups of up to 15 prisoners helped pull up old railroad ties in Provo Canyon last year, aiding a bicycle path construction project near Vivian Park that was delayed almost three years because of construction costs.
Before the program started last year, the prisoners would have simply put in their time at the jail. But the drastic overcrowding and related problems have forced the sheriff's office to come up with new - or old - solutions, Bateman said.
"We were having to turn away people who were coming in to serve their time on weekends. In some cases, we had a waiting list of three to four months just to get into the jail," he said. "Because of that, we had people falling through the cracks or not getting their time served."
County leaders hope that expanding the program will satisfy American Civil Liberties Union officials, who are suing the county on behalf of prisoners at the jail because of overcrowding. County commissioners and Bateman are trying to show the ACLU that they are doing everything possible to solve the problem until they can open the new Utah County Security Center in Spanish Fork.
Besides relieving the overcrowding to a point, expanding the program will also provide significant savings for the jail because officials won't have to pay to house the prisoners in the jail, and the only meals the county pays for are sack lunches, Bateman said.
"This really is more cost-effective than housing the prisoners, and besides, it's a really effective use of county resources," he said.
Though the prisoners who participate in the program are able to go home after the nine-hour workdays, they are also put to good use, since the work is often back-breaking, Edwards said.
"(Prisoners who participate) have got to be physically able to do the work. That's one of the restrictions they've got to meet to get into the program," Edwards said.