By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
Mary McMahan, mother of two students, told the Madison County School Board on Thursday she thought some school district expenses were questionable.
Of especial concern, she said, was the purchase of meals for detention center trusties who work at the district’s bus garage.
“I understand that we are now feeding the prisoners who work in the bus yard,” McMahan said during the school board meeting’s public comment period. “Despite the fact, why we even have prisoners in a bus garage adjacent to White Hall (Elementary), I do not understand, but why they need to be fed at taxpayer expense, I definitely do not understand that.”
At both November’s meeting and Thursday’s, board member Mary Renfro questioned reimbursements made to director of transportation Skip Benton in the amount of $287 (for October) and $322 (for November).
Chief Finance Officer Debbie Frazier each time explained Benton was being reimbursed for providing meals to the trusties who “clean up around the garage and maintenance-type things,” with no other cost to the district.
“It seems to me, if you’re in jail, you shouldn’t be wined and dined,” Renfro said Thursday. “We should just do like everybody else does and get them a sack lunch. Or let the jail take care of it.”
Madison County Schools has been using the state-run trusties program since 1999, said district spokesperson Erin Stewart on Friday.
Trusties wash buses, clean up the garage and also repair bus damage to mailboxes or driveways, “which happens occasionally,” Stewart said.
Two trusties are usually employed each day, but there can be just one or up to three. They are picked up from the jail around 7 a.m. and are returned at 3 p.m., Stewart said.
The staff at the bus garage is trained by the state to manage trusties. For 8 hours of work, trusties get a $7 lunch provided by the district, she added.
Jailer Doug Thomas said two of his trusty crews, that work for the Department of Transportation, are delivered bagged lunches from the jail. However, he said the city of Richmond, its recycling center, the Valley View Ferry and Madison County Schools provide lunch to their trusty crews “as a reward for hard work” and “for hours of free labor.”
Most of the trusties are state prisoners, while a few are county prisoners who may owe child support. Only inmates the state Department of Corrections classifies as “Level 1” or “Level 2” may work outside the jail, Thomas said.
The inmates on these levels are non-violent offenders, some with no prior convictions. They have never had behavioral problems in jail and have short sentences, generally less than five years, the jailer said.
Each trusty also is strip-searched when returned to the jail each day.
In exchange for their work, trusties can earn a sentence reduction of up to four days a month. The state pays each prisoner 63 cents a day.
Showing good behavior and a willingness to do these jobs also can work in a trusty’s favor when it comes time for their parole hearing, Thomas added.
“If you’re eligible to work, it’s my job to put you out there,” he said, noting that the state will transfer work-eligible prisoners to other counties if he does not find them jobs.
Madison County receives $33 a day for each state prisoner housed at the detention center.
The trusty program “allows us to get quite a bit of work done for a very inexpensive rate,” Stewart said. “Rarely do we have issues with the trusties who work for us.”
While “things may happen” involving trusties in the work release program, Thomas said he can recall only a few incidents over the years.
In February, trusty Billy R. Thompson, who was in jail for a probation violation involving a felony offense, was removed from the work release program after an incident at the bus garage, according to records from the state Department of Corrections requested by the Richmond Register.
According to the report, Benton said he received a complaint about a woman “crawling under the fence on the back side of the bus garage area and that a male wearing a blue Central sweatshirt” got on one of the buses.
After a deputy arrived and found Thompson in possession of a cell phone, cigarettes and a lighter, the inmate admitted to having sex with the woman on the bus, as stated on the report written by Deputy Class D Coordinator Tami Allen.
While in possession of the cell phone, deputies witnessed several text messages come through “talking about pills,” the report stated. Thompson later tested positive for benzodiazapines, suboxane and oxycodene.
In October, White Hall Elementary School was put on lockdown for a short time when a man spotted at the campus fence near the playground, aroused suspicions.
Teachers ushered students into the building as a precaution and called police.
The man at the fence turned out to be a trusty working at the bus garage nearby who told police he was assigned to pick up litter along the fence. The man was not charged and was returned to jail.
Thomas said the incident was a “big misunderstanding.”
“Most of these guys go out of their way to work hard,” he said. “Inmates do not need to sit here all day. They need to be out there working if they are eligible to work … I wish people could see what they are doing; what they are accomplishing.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.