MoDOT inmate program helping stretch taxpayer dollars

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JEFFERSON CITY - The number of taxpayer dollars going toward housing prison inmates in often criticized, but MoDOT says it has found a way to put those taxpayer dollars to better use. 

Offenders in minimum-security prisons can apply for work release to do jobs along the highway, ranging from mowing lawns to picking up litter. MoDOT said using inmates for these jobs, rather than normal employees, saves the state about $20 million. 

This enables MoDOT to finish projects it might not otherwise be able to complete and practice preventative maintenance. 

“It allows us to do projects we couldn’t get done, like erosion control, which can create more damage. So we are also preventing bigger projects from coming up in the future," said Rand Swanigan, MoDOT senior roadside management specialist. 

The projected 2016 budget for the Missouri Department of Corrections was $710,168,328, according to the annual report released at the end of last year. With the $20 million of that made up through the MoDOT program, about three percent of the taxpayer cost is made back.

One of the aims of the program is also to help inmates get on-the-job training as they approach their release dates. The program is for offenders who are close to being released and will likely be looking for a job once they get out of prison. All decisions on which inmates are eligible for the program are made by the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Swanigan said the mutual benefit between that department and MoDOT is what makes the program so effective. 

“It’s two-fold, because theres a lot of activity that needs to be done. There are roadside issues that are lower priority, but higher labor. On the flip side, it can help rehabilitate and teach work skills to inmates as they prepare to leave prison," Swanigan said. 

Other MoDOT employees oversee the work done by the inmates across over 80 worker crews each day, although much of the work release program is seasonal. 

The program could expand, depending on the demand for the type of labor the work release provides.

If it makes sense for MoDOT, Swanigan said there, could be more inmate workers in the future. 

“We continue to look at making it more efficient as we go. There are transportation costs associated with it. So, we are open to expanding if it makes sense financially depending on crew availability at different institutions," Swanigan said.