County prison hurting after uncertainty

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A year ago, county prison guard seemed like the most unstable job in Gwinnett.

Commissioners had just set a timetable to close the facility's doors, after rejecting a tax increase to stave off a massive reduction to services.

For months, warden David Peek was just trying to hold his staff together long enough to fulfill a contract with the state for housing its inmates.

But officials reconsidered their decision, deciding the numbers needed another look. The prison, they said, isn't just a drain on county taxes, since inmates do a lot of the landscape, litter control and janitorial work of the county.

"We like to feel it's a benefit to the taxpayers," Peek said of the labor. "It's a supplemental work force for the county."

The prison wasn't given a pardon, but it was given a reprieve. The timetable was eliminated, and a study committee was formed to take a look further into the pros and cons of being only one of 23 counties in the state to have a local correctional institute.

The decision also came with the reconsideration of raising taxes, which were able to stave off some of the most drastic cuts to service late last year.

The committee is expected to finalize its report next month.

In the meantime, the Gwinnett County Correctional Complex has been anything but stable, Peek said.

Since the July vote, 36 of the prison employees quit due to the uncertainty. That is 25 percent of the staff, Peek said, and 27 of those positions are still vacant.

Commissioners had approved the staffing to open a closed housing unit, if the state agreed to send 64 inmates and pay for their care. But the state is having its own fiscal crisis and said no to the deal, Peek said.

The labor value has been suffering because of the turnover.

In Peek's budget, there are the staff and equipment to place 24 work crews into the field.

But because of the vacancies, only six are active now. Two work in the parks each weekday, although the parks department wants to use nine.

Two crews landscape and clean the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center inside and out, and a third crew has been requested. The last two crews are left to cover any other requests for public property that come in.

The system used to allow a full detail to clean Ronald Reagan Parkway each week -- a once pristine roadway that is now the subject of frequent complaints. Some work crews were sent to local cities to help clean up their parks and public facilities, and litter and graffiti on roadsides were quickly cleaned.

"We have too many inmates in the building right now," Peek said. "We would rather them outside working than sitting."

Many of the inmates have a job to do inside the facility, such as laundry or kitchen duty, but Peek said the labor value to the community isn't being maximized because of the vacancies.

The prison's GED program is also idle because the part-time teacher was laid off last year and hasn't been replaced.

Still, Peek is trying to bring his department back to normal -- at least until the decision on remaining open is made.

"For 2010, we're budgeted and we're trying to fulfill the mission of the department, given the staff we have on hand," he said.