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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : Shortage Hinders Plans for Inmate Work Crews : Penal system: Prison needs influx of minimum-security convicts before it can perform all community tasks being requested.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fledgling program at the new state prison in Lancaster to have minimum-security inmates perform community service work around the Antelope Valley is being hobbled by a rather unlikely problem--a shortage of inmates, prison officials say.

Since its Feb. 1 opening, the prison’s population has grown to more than 3,700 inmates. About 200 of those are supposed to be minimum security inmates eligible for such work. But the actual number was cut from about 150 to 90 recently when many were ousted as punishment for staging a protest.

As a result, and because there are other chores for the remaining minimum-security inmates, prison officials thus far have fielded only one of four planned work crews. Prison spokesman Kenn Hicks could not say how soon any of the other eight-to-10 man crews will be formed.

The manpower shortage stems from a protest late last month by the so-called Level 1 inmates over a canceled softball game. That led 53 members of the group to be disciplined, with most reassigned out of the Level 1 program, Hicks said. The move reduced that inmate group by one-third.

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The Aug. 22 softball game was cut short by prison officials when an argument broke out among the Level 1 players, Hicks said. When prison officials the next day refused to permit the game to resume, the inmates protested by refusing to return to their barracks.

Officials at the Lancaster prison are now waiting the arrival of another 20 to 30 minimum security inmates in the coming weeks.

Community work crews are a standard feature at California’s state prisons, with the goal of making the institutions more popular with nearby residents. “We want to let the community know we are in partnership with them. We’re giving something back to the community,” Hicks said.

Last Monday, the Lancaster City Council approved an agreement with prison officials for the city to get the exclusive services of the second planned inmate crew to maintain parks and clear weeds and drainage channels. Yet the shortage has left its starting date up in the air.

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Under the city’s agreement, Lancaster will spend about $47,000 a year to use the services of the one inmate work crew, consisting or eight to 10 prisoners. Most of that money will go to pay the salary of the corrections officer who will oversee the crew.

Of the prison’s four planned crews, two (including the only one now in the field) will perform work at no charge for various public agencies in the Antelope Valley. The other two will be hired at minimal cost, one exclusively by Lancaster, and the other available to other public agencies.

Inmates serving on the work crews are paid a small hourly stipend by prison officials regardless of whether a public agency is paying for their services. Inmates on the first crew that began Sept. 8 have been getting about 18 cents an hour, Hicks said.

Last week, the prison work crew spent the day clearing weeds around the perimeter of the state’s fairgrounds in Lancaster. But those inmates, who have jokingly dubbed themselves “The A Team,” were only seven strong instead of the standard 10 men because of the shortage.

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Earlier in the week, the crew spent a day cleaning up around an abandoned housing tract in Lancaster and another day cleaning fields near the Lancaster Auto Mall.

Despite the meager pay, prison officials and inmates agreed the work assignments are popular duty since they give inmates a small taste of freedom and a break from the prison routine. One officer said there often is a waiting list for the assignment.

Inmates do not, however, get any more time trimmed from their sentences than other inmates inside the prison who work there or participate in vocational or educational programs. All those inmates get one day cut from their sentences for each day of activity.

Hicks said inmates who volunteer and are picked for the outside work crews cannot have behavior problems or an escape history. And only inmates who have less than 30 months remaining on their sentences and who have not injured their victims are permitted in the broader Level 1 program.

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The 252-acre Lancaster prison has room for about 4,000 higher security inmates housed in typical concrete cellblocks surrounded by dual perimeter fences with towers and armed guards. But the Level 1 minimum security inmates live in barracks built to hold 200 outside the prison’s main compound.

In the prison’s eight months since opening, the only escapes have been two Level 1 inmates who walked away in July from their barracks. Both men were quickly recaptured. Escapes from community work crews at other prisons around the state have occurred, but Hicks said those have been rare.


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