Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 7,
1999. All rights reserved.
Does the Work House Work? Just Try It
Hey! I don’t see you! I only see all you [pick your
favorite expletive for buttocks] loading it on that bus." I look
up. Inside the ribbon wire, just beneath the high, second-story sign
"Mercer County Workhouse" stands a window filled with broad
shoulders and a fierce scowl. Sergeant James Taylor — chief of
operations for all Mercer County Correction’s outside work details.
I was told to report to him at 8 a.m. sharp to begin my sentence.
But somehow his directions seem poignantly clear and I decided to
skip the formalities. Joining the bus line, I size up the crew: almost
all black, half a head taller, and surprisingly joking and jovial.
"Ah, would this be the S.L.A.P. van?" I ask with novice trepidation.
Gales of laughter.
Apparently, this was the work release van reserved for those 48 of
the county’s approximately 900 prisoners whose behavior and non-violent
crimes have qualified them for minimum security. Daily, these inmates
are allowed release from the "prison perimeter" to perform
group work details around the county.
"No. You’re S.L.A.P. — that’s upstairs." A guard leads
me into a dark, hangar-style building where a bird twitters on the
high ribbon wire. I follow up a wooden stairway and park it, as told,
in a chair on the landing. "Wait here. You’ll get processed in
The sign over the office door says "Superintendent’s Labor Assistance
Program." That’s me. Actually it’s the approximately 225 men and
women at any given time who are convicted of minor, non-violent crimes
and are allowed to serve their time by reporting for work details
at least two days a week, while living at home.
This is a triumph of government where everybody wins. If the gavel
comes down on you with a 40-day, in-jail sentence for smoking a joint
or driving drunk, your boss may or may not be sympathetic, but will
still place you on the unemployment line. Acme Mortgage or your landlord
will be unsympathetic and place your stuff on the curb. The state
must fork out a hefty $2,340 for your little vacation. (Yes, that’s
right, it costs $58.50 per person, per day to keep you rotting.) And
Mercer County Correctional Institution, which currently holds about
880 prisoners in its 900-person max facility, will jump to 1,100 inmates
with patrons sleeping on the floor.
Instead the judge sentences you to 40 days in S.L.A.P.
You commit to serving two days a week and show up at the County Correctional
Center on Route 29 (two miles south of Lambertville) or at the old
Trenton Detention Center. You spend your mornings (up to five hours)
on work details that save the county and municipalities the egregious
cost of hired labor. If you take a shine to painting or picking up
litter, you can even work off your sentence in three, four or all
seven days a week.
The county gets its parks cleaned up, you get to keep your house —
and family life — and society gets to keep an employed worker
in its midst at sentence’s end. The only ones disappointed are the
vindictive, seeking vengeance over justice, at any price or the hidebound
foolish who ever chant the mantra of stiffer sentences as the solution
to devil crime.
Back in the office, officer Bob Tatar takes my fingerprints, photo,
and pedigree. In order to be treated on this assignment as much as
possible like an actual convict, I have opted for a hypothetical charge
of driving while intoxicated as my crime, with a little resisting
arrest thrown in — a trifle to afford me honor amongst my S.L.A.P.
fellows. The sentence is a hefty fine, suspended license, and 10 days
"Occupation?" asks Tatar.
Tatar snorts in disgust. Just another roust-about with no skills of
any value. The prison administration building is re-doing offices
and could sure use an electrician. S.L.A.P. Director Lieutenant Bill
Kelly also keeps a sharp eye for computer programmers for office work.
But what Kelly truly hungers for now is landscapers. All those parks
and ball fields will soon need mowing. He needs a man or woman who
can hop behind a huge mower or backhoe; not some scribbler who thinks
"choke" and "throttle" are synonyms.
Pedigree authenticated, and with new S.L.A.P. ID firmly affixed, l
am escorted to the van and driven down to the Trenton Detention Center,
where we pick up the veterans of our labor crew, and head for the
work site. The eight of us are a politically correct assemblage, like
any random assortment of folk rounded up along the street — couple
of late teens, two early seventies, blacks, Hispanics, whites. Nice
representation. Slowly the ice breaks.
John, tall and talkative, is grinding through his sentence.
His night shift job as a train operator frees his days and he usually
dedicates three days a week to his sentence. "My wife would kill
me if I did all seven, every week. I mean ya gotta have a life."
He’s not too forthcoming about his offense, but I catch mutterings
about "domestic arrears" (alimony/child support.) Instantly,
we cluster around John as our mentor.
"Oh, this won’t be hard. This is a weekday — small numbers
of us — means odd jobs. Weekends: those are the long ones. And
hey, get your time done before April 9th. That’s when the Thunder
have opening game and guess who cleans up the ball park? Man, they
work you the full five hours — picking up the whole field and
parking lot, hosing down the seats and stairs, even cutting the fields
Short termers like Julia, a lanky and laconic chain-smoker slapped
with 10 days for DWI, begin mentally rearranging schedules. So does
Irv, who pulled his intoxicated driving stunt right in front of the
Trenton Police Station. (He can now recite every bus schedule in the
state.) The van parks. We unload, shuffle, and wait.
"I don’t know," says young Tommy, "This CO’s a real f — — —
a — — — ! I’ve seen him before; he’ll really make us work."
Veteran Tommy "had some drug problems" that netted him 30
days of community service and 90 S.L.A.P. days. (Probably a first
time drug arrest for so light a slap.)
The "CO" of whom Tommy speaks is the armed chunk of
granite, Guard Joseph Brewster. Five foot, nine muscular inches in
any direction you want to name, Brewster is part of Mercer Correction’s
Emergency Response Team (the prison’s SWAT equivalent.) He received
his training after college in the Air Force. His unusually high skills
at marksmanship and "2C" (use of lethal force) led to his
selection as body guard to the globe-trotting, then-Defense Secretary
"Brew-no" as he is nicknamed, seems a bit of overkill for
us joint tokers and drunk drivers, but he loves it. "Actually,"
Brewster smiles, "The world traveling was fun, but the body guarding
grows real old, real quick. I’m married now, and I prefer meeting
new folks in this job. Treat ’em friendly and they open up." Recently,
when he was guarding a minimum-security work detail near his Trenton
home, his wife came out and grilled the crew a barbecue lunch. Mr.
Brewster scarcely profiles Hollywood’s sadistic prison screw, but
his no-trouble record stands unseconded.
Finally, Tom Beers, Hamilton Township’s recycling coordinator, appears
with trash bags. We don our international-orange vests and Brewster
explains our task. We are to clean the road, railroad area, and bridge
abutting the Demag Delaval pump manufacturing plant on Nottingham
Avenue. The day before hundreds of striking workers had protested
the incursion of scabs in front of the factory. Crowds (of any politics)
draw garbage and garbage draws S.L.A.P.
"Now split into two teams of four and work down this road,"
Brewster announces. "One take bottles and cans, the other take
paper and trash."
"I’ll go with you," says Rose, a chatty blonde from Lawrenceville
who faces 180 S.L.A.P. days. Seems her "nothing charge" was
"illegally" augmented by "vicious cops" who typed
phony previous charges into her computer record. Apparently, she never
kited that check last year and the blood on the other guy’s sweatshirt
was hers, not his, so actually that assault charge was dismissed.
"Now," she huffs, tossing her long scarf over her Calvin Klein
sweatshirt "I have to sue the police!"
"Good luck," I say.
"O.K.," says Brewster to his charges. "Bags full —
just down the road and around the bridge. Short and sweet today."
And so it is. Everyone starts in with a brush, sidewalk, and gutter
for trash. It’s not exactly giggly volleyball, but demeans one no
worse than de-littering your own yard.
Tommy spies me foraging under brush with my paw in a tar bucket. "Hey
man," he says. "Don’t go there. Don’t do any more than they
tell you to."
"Don’t listen to him," adds John. "A few weeks ago, we
were pushing brooms over at the (Trenton) armory. This one guy chatted,
sat, and did squat; I don’t think that broom ever touched the ground
in two hours. Before we know it, that dude is cuffed, pushed into
van, and finishing the rest of his sentence days in a cell. No thanks,
Make no mistake, S.L.A.P. is a real jail sentence, insists its Director,
Lieutenant Kelly, and the time served is very serious. Fail to pull
your weight on the detail, and your cell awaits. Fail to show up on
either of your two weekly days at 8 a.m. and it’s a parole violation.
They hunt you down and haul you in. You could even end up mainstreamed
into that bilious orange suit and learn to play with your fellow inmates.
Kelly is the first to point out that few S.L.A.P participants are
that stupid. Bill Kelly has administered the program for virtually
all of its three and a half years and of the 2,500 folks who have
flowed through, fewer than 4 percent have ever required warrants.
"Most of those," he adds, "are just found in their own
homes. We come in and there they are, watching the tube. So we take
Slowly, the bags fill and our area gets policed. It’s not my house,
it’s not even my town, but I must admit to a twinge of pride as we
load all those bags onto the van and I look back over our road. Even
Tommy’s face flashes a quick grimace of satisfaction.
Tom Beers nods Brewster a few quick instructions on where to dump
bags of recyclables vs. trash as we join our garbage on a brief ride
to the Hamilton Ecological Facility. Beers, the man responsible for
keeping Hamilton Township clean, is also smiling — as well he
should. In the past year, S.L.A.P. and inmate work details have removed
more than 19 tons of garbage from 145 miles of roads in his township
alone. In addition, his parks got mowed and raked for free. His municipality
basks in a minimum $9,306 budget saving from the year’s 1,551 hours
of prison labor; not to mention the administrative costs of the 255
workers who arrive transported to site, ready and organized.
The municipalities benefit along with the folks in safety orange.
Lieutenant Kelly hefts a bulging sheaf of requests for S.L.A.P. and
inmate labor, most of which will receive help within two or three
weeks. Habitat for Humanity needs a contingent of strong bodies to
hoist house frames into place. Trenton’s downtown Puerto Rican Day
Care Center requires painting. A Presbyterian Church steeple in Lawrenceville
stands begging for some of the less terrified S.L.A.P.s to clamber
up, repair, and paint. The Mercer County Library system has orangemen
cutting grass outside and sorting materials inside. State parks, little
league fields and the Duck Island park-in-the making all get cut,
raked and delittered. The list grows on and on. "As long as it’s
government or a non-profit outfit," says Kelly, "we can almost
always honor the request." After all, it is virtually a captive
I return to S.L.A.P. on Saturday for my second sentence
day of the week. As John predicted, the weekend gang has swelled to
40-some workers. My crew is sent out to clean up the Trenton courthouse
and surrounding buildings. Bent over a rich garden of cigaret butts,
I introduce myself to Greg and Connor, my comrades-in-orange.
The former has come from East Brunswick, the latter all the way from
Tuckerton. Regardless of where you live, if convicted in Mercer, you
serve in Mercer.
"Fifty-four days of this s — -!" snarls Connor, "and
this is my first." His 17 auto violations, running the gamut from
driving-while-suspended to using fictitious plates, had given him
justifiable expectations of jail. He had already found storage for
his furniture and nearly given up his apartment when "this really
great lawyer got me off with three years suspension, $2,000 fine and
Greg, boasting nearly as impressive a list of violations, credits
his astoundingly light 10-day sentence not on being white, middle-aged,
and well dressed, but rather on the luck of getting a substitute judge
who seemed entirely blase.
The work is again short and sweet. Again we finish within two hours.
Frankly, if this writer claims any disappointment in the S.L.A.P.
program, it would be that the details seem rather light. However,
I have only savored the appetizer, perhaps if I came in for a full
entre of cleaning up after the Trenton Thunder’s huge crowds, I might
view things differently.
My work complete, I hop my bicycle and pedal the few, swift miles
back to Cranbury. As I leave, Greg is trying to placate his girlfriend
who has driven him down and waited through his labors. Connor walks
up to a bus stop to catch a bus home — sometime. No doubt about
it. The toughest part of S.L.A.P is just showing up.
So does the work house work? The answer comes from Jake — 40 days
for petty theft. "I haven’t seen a weekend in three months —
there is no way I’m going through this crud again."
On one of my work details I witnessed an incongruous
exchange: The hard-nosed guard, while chauffeuring us back to the
original pick up points (the Detention Center and then the Route 29
jail), apologized to one of the participants: "If I’d only known
we passed near your house, I would have dropped you off."
Is this respect or is it coddling? Should this program be a little
harsher? What message is getting back to druggies, drunks, deadbeats,
and other minor criminals ?
I don’t know any better than the politicians, the boys in the barber
shop, or anyone on the outside. The only real expert testimony comes
from the pros — men like Lieutenant Bill Kelly and Warden Dennis
Cunningham, who hold a combined experience of nearly half a century
within the prison perimeter. Ever since l976, Bill Kelly’s broad shoulders
have born the Orwellian insignia "Mercer County Department of
Public Safety." When he came here, immediately after college,
he guarded the 67 prisoners of the County Corrections Center. Today
he guards the nearly 900 inmates of this 105-year-old complex whose
facilities were expanded only once in Kelly’s tenure.
More than 1 million Americans currently waste their days in prisons.
New Jersey makes a slightly better per capita showing with only 27,450
incarcerated; one out of every 293 New Jerseyans. "Every prison
in this country is over-crowded," says Kelly. "But Mercer
has no one sleeping on the floors. We’re proud of our fight against
But prison staff admits that both guard efficiency and morale have
been appalling. Warden Dennis Cunningham was hired in February to
sweep out the county’s fouled system. "Part of the problem is
here," says Cunningham, tapping a file with disciplinary cases
against guards. "But a lot of it comes from the state’s current
screw-up." Recently, in a cost-saving frenzy, the state Corrections
Department announced that no more state prisoners would be housed
in county facilities.
Traditionally, the state farms out its overflow to counties paying
them $58.50 per inmate, per day for the accommodation. In response,
Mercer, seeing over 15 percent of its forecasted inmate population
shut off, closed the Trenton Detention Center last September, shoving
the entire county population behind the Correctional Center’s bars.
Now, of course, the state stands clueless as to the housing of its
own prisoners. But Cunningham, with 27 years administering everything
from youth correctional facilities to Wagner State Prison, has already
begun sweeping. Ten percent of the 199-guard staff are newly coming
on, along with two new deputies. His motto, "We’re through with
full-time staffers doing part-time jobs."
S.L.A.P. is soon to test Kelly and Cunningham’s new fervor with a
near doubling of its participants and tripling of the work hours.
New Jersey’s Comprehensive Enforcement Program (C.E.P.) mirrors S.L.A.P.
with its participants coming from state superior, rather than local
courts. These C.E.P. offenders funnel into the S.L.A.P. programs.
A heavy proportion are those "deadbeat dads" in "domestic
Now the state has deemed it more sensible to have those inmates working
and paying outside while serving S.L.A.P. sentences. So another 200
participants serving an average of 90 to 364 days will come under
Both warden and program director welcome the expansion as a humane
answer to the crowding solution. Many of the get-tough-on-crime mob
would rather see an electronic bracelet slapped on child support deadbeats.
Kelly admits to the superb technology of these electronic cuffs that
affix to an offender’s limb. They can tell guards remotely and instantly
if a person breaks their house-arrest sentence. In fact, Mercer County
Executive Bob Prunetti even experimented with house arrest programs.
But technology, he concluded, bears an egregious price. Full-time
guards, staring at costly monitors proved little savings over monitoring
inmates in person through a program like S.L.A.P.
Mercer County and needs help on a specific job, you may you may be
able to get it from the S.L.A.P and inmate labor pool. Send a letter
briefly describing your organization and its specific need, to Robert
D. Prunetti, Mercer County Executive, 640 South Broad Street, Box
8068, Trenton 08650.
Please do not call Mercer County Corrections. Please do not invoke
slave labor laws by requesting aid for your private home or business.
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