ROSEBURG, Ore. - It’s a classic inmate work crew stereotype: if you release them, they will run.
But the fear of inmates walking away from work crews isn't new; in fact you've probably seen the scenario featured on the silver screen.
“Somebody might come up to me and say: ‘Where's your horse? Where's your shotgun? Where's their leg iron? Why don't they have a big ball on?’” joked Deputy Loren Hughes who supervises the inmate work crew program in Douglas County. “They have that conception of the old times like ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’ kind of thing. It's not like that at all.”
At the Douglas County Jail, low-level to medium-risk offenders can receive time off their sentences in exchange for manual labor on a work crew.
Usually, they're local people serving time for drug possession, theft and parole violation with only a short time left on their sentence.
“We've worked them into places where we've had to cut back on the budgets,” said Hughes.
From wood-splitting for non-profits like U.C.A.N. to cleanup at the Wildlife Safari, inmates in Douglas County spend on average 32,000 hours a year toiling at jobs that might not otherwise get done.
“As a non-profit organization it's integral to us to have as much help as we possibly can to function as well as we can,” said Katie Alayan, an Elephant Keeper at the Wildlife Safari.
But is the security cost counterproductive to the work they're doing?
Hughes says the primary cost is the supervising deputy’s salary and the crew’s transportation.
“The program isn't that spendy for what these guys give back to the community.”
Is the free labor worth the potential danger of having criminals walk away?
KVAL News called seven different city and county jails in the area to ask about “walk aways.” Only Lane County, Cottage Grove and Douglas County actually operate work crew programs.
Only Cottage Grove and Douglas County keep their inmates behind bars when they're not on work crews.
The jailers tell KVAL news that seven inmates have walked away in the past five years.
Douglas County considers their inmate work crews so successful they'd like to add more.
Correction officials said before inmates are allowed on crews, they're evaluated on their potential risk to society. None of the jails we spoke with allow sex offenders to participate in the work crew program.
What’s the penalty if an inmate does try to flee?
Usually a warrant will be issued and the inmate is typically found within a couple days.
Not only will they be banned from future inmate work crews in the country--they would also face escape charges and anywhere from six to twelve additional months added to their sentence.
This series continues Wednesday, Nov. 17. Watch Part II on Inmate Work Crews as we take you inside "Dorm 4" where the work crews are lodged at the Douglas County jail. We talk candidly with inmates about the temptation to run away.