Ohio to Use Prison Inmates as Janitors at State House

Ohio wants to use prisoners to replace Statehouse janitors and groundskeepers who were laid off because of budget cuts, angering a labor union.

The state board that operates the building says it will probably use two inmates to do grounds work and another five for night cleaning.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the state's largest public employees' union and the one that represented the laid-off workers, filed a grievance Wednesday to reverse the plan.

"These aren't phantom jobs — these are real jobs, real people," said Sally Meckling, union spokeswoman.

The union said it's wrong to substitute inmate labor for good-paying union jobs. It also questioned the wisdom of allowing inmates to work in the frequently visited, 147-year-old Statehouse.

The Statehouse needs the inmates because it has lost 17 employees since January because of budget cuts, William Carleton, executive director of the Capital Square Review and Advisory Board, said Thursday.

"Get the money reinstated, and we'll bring the employees back," Carleton said. "I'm not the one who cut the budget."

Statehouse operations have been cut $310,000 this year, almost 10 percent of the Capitol's budget. Gov. Ted Strickland ordered $640 million sliced from state government operations in December, including 5.75 percent across-the-board cuts to all but the most vital programs. That brought total cuts for the current budget year now to $1.9 billion.

A guard will supervise the inmates, who will wear clothes identifying them as prisoners. They'll make $100 a month, the top wage for an inmate working outside a prison, but a fraction of a Statehouse laborer's pay of around $26,000 annually.

Ohio also uses carefully screened inmates to garden at the governor's residence in Bexley in suburban Columbus, to build furniture and work on cars at prison factories around the state, and to clean along highways.

The inmates who will work at the Statehouse are nonviolent offenders serving short sentences with clean prison records, said Stuart Hudson, warden of Pickaway Correctional Institution, south of Columbus.

They are carefully screened and will be interviewed for the jobs by Statehouse officials, he said.

"We're very comfortable with the inmates we send up to perform the duties," Hudson told The Associated Press Thursday. "We take this job very seriously and our priority is to protect the public."

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, based in Washington, D.C., said it's unaware of any other state directly replacing laid-off workers with inmates.

Inmates in Virginia have long tended the grounds of the state Capitol in Richmond, while Arizona prisoners have done custodial work on state buildings in Phoenix.

In Maryland, owners of seafood processing plants on the state's Eastern Shore are considering hiring state prisoners to pick crabs because the foreign workers they've depended on for years have recently had trouble getting temporary visas.

Prisoners from the old Ohio State Penitentiary helped build the Statehouse foundation and ground floors during its construction from 1839 to 1861.

The practice was controversial then, and the prisoners were removed after tradesmen complained they were losing out on good-paying jobs, according to an advisory board history of the Statehouse.