The men working outside — with flush, sweaty faces — were cleaning off landscaping equipment at the end of a day of labor for the jail’s inmate work program. They were soon to go back inside as 4 p.m. — quitting time — approached.
The workers, who are already sentenced and serving time in the county jail, participate in the program four days a week for no pay. To get into the program and out in the sun, they have to make it through a rigorous vetting process, which does not accept inmates with any current or previous accusations of violence, fleeing from authorities or other serious charges.
Once accepted, they cut grass on the county’s properties on Chattin Drive near the jail in Canton. They also pick up trash, clean gun ranges and do other odd jobs. Typically, they stay close to the jail. But sometimes, their work takes them around the county when doing other jobs, such as moving boxes at the courthouse in Canton.
Recently, their boss, Cherokee Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Hoover, stood 40 or 50 yards away as they hosed off the lawn mowers and other tools and loaded them up in a storage building behind the jail.
When the inmates were done cleaning, they sipped water, smiled and talked, enjoying a quick break before they headed back inside to get ready for dinnertime. Then, they’d be left to peer from their tiny cell windows at the world outside, like the others, until morning.
Though the inmates walked freely, minding their own business while Hoover minded his, the deputy says this isn’t a problem; he’s never had anyone try to run in the almost seven years he’s been overseeing workers in the program.
“Not one,” Hoover said firmly. “Everybody that comes to work with me gets the same speech: I inform them the penalties for running. Escape is five years. I say, ‘How much time have you got?’ You say, ‘Oh, I’ve got two months left.’ I say, ‘OK, realistically, is two months worth five years in prison?’”
And they all seem to get it, he said.
Despite the stiff repercussions for trying to escape, all the men sign up for the program, Hoover said. They get a 15-minute break in the morning, an hour to eat their packed lunch from inside and another break at the end of the day.
“All these guys are here voluntarily,” Hoover said. “There’s a lot more volunteers than get picked. The sheriff lets no knuckleheads out.”
Major Karen Johnson, who oversees the program, says the taste of freedom the workers are allowed is the reason for the tough application process.
“You don’t have that many who are going to pass the stringent vetting,” she said. “That’s one reason we don’t have mass people out. I’m very careful who I let outside.”
Besides the outside workers, the jail also has inmates working inside in the cafeteria, laundry department and housekeeping. At times, the cities of Canton and Woodstock also have an inmate worker on loan from the jail, as does the county animal shelter, Johnson said.
But those who leave the jail have to stand up to the toughest vetting process, the major said. They are also housed away from other inmates and are searched when they come inside.
“Think about it — if you’re outside, there might be a very small potential for contraband to come in,” Johnson explained.
But the scrutiny seems to be worth it, though the county declined to let the inmates be interviewed, as Johnson and Hoover say the workers enjoy the break from the jail.
“They get to go be outside, work like regular people,” Hoover said, as the men waited to be sent back inside for the night. “I know a lot of people would say, ‘Why is it so much a privilege to be out and work and not get paid for it,’ but to them, it is. They get to be out, (have) freedom, get some sunshine, see people.”