By Conrad Dudderar
A proposed agreement would allow new “work release” inmates in Canadian County after state corrections’ officials agreed not to require counties to pay their workers’ compensation insurance.
Canadian County Commissioners want county government offices to be able to utilize personnel eligible for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ work release program.
State prisoners may be referred to work release 12 months before their earned release date.
Canadian County previously has benefitted from the program.
“The big ‘hang-up’ for county government over the years has been the state always held to the position that we had to provide workers’ compensation (coverage) for them,” Canadian County Commission Chairman Dave Anderson said.
The Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma (ACCO) opposed carrying them on workers’ comp policies due to liability concerns.
Now that requirement has been removed from a newly drafted agreement between Canadian County and DOC, according to Assistant District Attorney Tommy Humphries.
“It basically says, if one of our employees or we do something willful, reckless or negligent to cause injury, then we may have an issue,” Humphries told commissioners July 25.
The revised agreement “doesn’t require direct workers’ comp insurance … they’ve changed this language.”
Canadian County officials prefer work release prisoners to other inmate workers because they typically are more consistent and have a better work ethic.
“We’d like to have them because they can be a little better-quality worker overall,” District 1 Commissioner Marc Hader said. “They’re closer to getting out, trying to establish a good work reputation and possibly get a job after.”
The work release program is separate from prisoner public works (PPW) contracts that the state DOC has with counties and municipalities.
Canadian County is not required to carry workers’ comp insurance on PPW inmates, Chairman Anderson noted.
With more state prisoners being released early, Hader said this has left a “smaller pool” of desirable, capable workers who meet criteria to work for Canadian County.
“All of us would like to have more than we tend to get,” he said.
Oklahoma’s work release program helps eligible inmates with reentry and successful reintegration into the community, according to the state DOC website.
“Those inmates need to have an established employment history, demonstrate a positive work ethic and demonstrate the ability to display appropriate conduct while being incarcerated,” the website reads.
Oklahoma prisoners in the work release program earn minimum wage, with part of the salary retained by the state.
Work release can provide a valuable service to Canadian County departments and facilities, according to District 3 Commissioner Jack Stewart.
“How do you get more of them, if you sign up for them?” Stewart asked.
Canadian County Expo & Event Center staff has benefitted from having inmate workers, who they hope to retain as they prepare to transition to release.
“We would like for them to stay on since they have done such a great job for us,” office manager Mandy Davis told county commissioners. “They have been consistent for the last six weeks.”
Commissioners discussed the work release program at their weekly meeting July 25 and are expected to act soon on the agreement with DOC officials.