Mercer County’s Labor Assistance Program

Joseph Brewster

Tom Beers

Lieutenant Bill Kelly

Bart Jackson Returns

Postscript: Coddling or Respectful?

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

a bit."

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.

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Mercer County’s Labor Assistance Program

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

of S.L.A.P.

"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.)

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Joseph Brewster

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

Caspar Weinberger.

"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.

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Tom Beers

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,


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Lieutenant Bill Kelly

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

them in."

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

work force.

Top Of Page
Bart Jackson Returns

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

this S.L.A.P."

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."

Top Of Page
Postscript: Coddling or Respectful?

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

Kelly’s program.

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.

If your legitimate non-profit organization operates within

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.

Corrections or additions?

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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

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