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Work release important for prison

Blair County’s prisoner work-release program was not the only one in Pennsylvania and other states victimized by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prisons across this country had to implement major changes on behalf of inmates’ safety and the safety of those who might have had to make contact with them during the health crisis.

Inmates, already restricted prior to the start of the pandemic, had to live with even more stringent limitations, prohibitions and realities — and the realization that no one knew how long the disruptions to normal, albeit uncomfortable, prison life might continue.

Likewise, the prison staff, inmates and officials in charge of overseeing the incarceration facility had cause for intense fear about what the full dimensions of those disruptions might ultimately be.

Last month, a small but significant beam of positive, new light infiltrated the walls of the aged county prison, which itself might be giving way to a new structure several years from now.

At an April 21 county prison board meeting, it was revealed that within several months the currently “mothballed” prisoner work-release program might be reactivated, now that the Covid situation — illnesses, deaths and associated restrictions — no longer is as devastating as it was for so many months.

Deputy Warden Jay Whitsel said the program should be ready to resume within a couple of months. He said prison officials had been contacted by some employers who are interested in inmates being approved to work for them.

Such employment offers the opportunity to benefit companies, as well as assist in the rehabilitation of the prisoners involved.

“There’s a certain class of offenders who are good candidates for work release,” District Attorney Pete Weeks, a member of the prison board, said at the meeting. “That’s what we want . . . to allow them to work and to give them a reason to remain out of prison.”

Joining Weeks in reflecting on the rehabilitative benefits possible through work release was President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, also a prison board member. However, Doyle expressed a somewhat puzzling opinion about the reason for the delay in getting the work-release program up and running again.

She blamed the aged prison and its deficits, but the program was able to operate under the cloud of those challenges before the pandemic struck. More accurately, concern over lingering effects of the pandemic was the main roadblock to the program’s return.

For readers who might not know all of what the program entails, it does not consist of “emptying” the lockup during the normal workday.

Prior to the pandemic halting the program in April 2020, three inmates were participating in the program, while during months in 2019, participation consisted of six inmates. Those were inmates who were qualified for participation and who were making a genuine effort to turn their lives around for the better.

A better, more-productive, crime-free life is the incentive that should guide many current inmates to explore participation, depending on the employers who have expressed interest in hiring a work-release inmate.

Across the United States, other locales are gearing up their work-release opportunities. Blair County should join them, as soon as possible.

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