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Clayton officials tout force-clean efforts

Photo by Curt Yeomans
Several unfinished houses on a cul-de-sac in Morrow have been abandoned since 2007, Clayton County officials said. The county eventually used prison labor to do a "forced cleanup," in which inmates cut down tall grass, removed debris and boarded up entrances to the houses.

Photo by Curt Yeomans Several unfinished houses on a cul-de-sac in Morrow have been abandoned since 2007, Clayton County officials said. The county eventually used prison labor to do a "forced cleanup," in which inmates cut down tall grass, removed debris and boarded up entrances to the houses.

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The appearances of four unfinished houses and the properties that contain them, in a cul-de-sac just outside Morrow, are radically different from just two months ago.

The reason: Clayton County's effort to use prison labor to clean up abandoned properties, county officials said on Wednesday.

On each property is a two-story home, which county officials said was left unfinished three years ago by developers who ran out of money. All of the homes have finished exteriors, but a couple of them did not have finished interior walls.

The county used inmates from the county jail in September to cut down tall weeds and grass, pick up trash and debris, and board up entrances and broken windows, officials said.

Lt. Ken Waits, assistant commander of the Clayton County Police Department's Code Enforcement Unit, told county, and City of Atlanta officials, on Wednesday the changes in the properties' appearances have been night and day since prison labor was used to clean them up.

"This was like a jungle," Waits exclaimed, during a visit to the property sites. "The weeds and grass had gotten to be five, to six-seven feet tall. You almost couldn't see one of the homes from the street, because the grass had gotten to be so tall. [The inmates] did a fantastic job."

County officials took representatives of the City of Atlanta's Department of Corrections around the county to show them how effective, and cost-efficient it can be to use prison labor, rather than private companies, to clean up abandoned properties.

Clayton County has been using inmates from the county prison in Lovejoy since September to do what are called "forced cleanups" on approximately 100 abandoned homes around the county, said the prison's Warden, Frank Smith. A "forced cleanup" is done after code enforcement officers have repeatedly tried -- to no avail -- to get the owners to clean up the abandoned properties.

The county sends someone out to clean up the properties, and then bills the property owners for the materials and labor costs, by adding the costs onto the property tax bills, Smith said.

"It's important for people to understand we're not working for the private property owners," Smith said. "We're working for the citizens of Clayton County, and these property owners are getting a bill for the cleanup added onto their tax bill."

The City of Atlanta is now interested in implementing the same program, using the city's prison inmates to clean up its abandoned properties, said Atlanta Department of Corrections Interim Chief Patrick Labat. He said it would be used to support initiatives of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to clean up the city. Labat said the city will do three "forced cleanup" days in December, using prison labor, and continue the effort in 2011.

"It falls right in line with the mayor's vision of a cleaner Atlanta," Labat said.

Until recently, Clayton County used seven private vendors to do the "force cleanups," said Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, but they would quickly run through the program's budget of $250,000 a year. "They would go through it in a matter of months," he said.

"It wasn't very cost-efficient," Smith told participants in Wednesday's tour of the county. "We picked it up, and had the prisoners do it, instead. The county was already paying for me, and it was already paying for the inmates, so it wasn't going to cost anything extra for the county."

Waits told participants in Wednesday's tour of clean-up sites that private vendors often proved to be difficult to work with, because they would not clean up the property to code enforcement standards, he said. "The fact that they had to repeatedly be brought back to do it correctly was a continuous problem with the vendors," he added.

Bell said switching to using prison inmates, as a cheaper alternative, has already proven to be a better option for the county. "They [prison officials] have spent less than $10,000, and we're now a quarter of the way through the fiscal year," the commission chairman said.

Smith said prisoners are chosen to participate in "forced cleanups" based on the skills they have. "We pull in inmates based on their specialty," he said. "I pull in some inmates who cut grass on roadside clean-up details, and then they are only here for a little while to cut the grass. Other inmates, who are skilled at construction, are used to board up windows."

Bell told Labat and other officials from Atlanta's Department of Corrections they should take regular tours of Atlanta to see how the cleanups are working, and to find new properties in need of a clean up.

"You have to go out on rides like this because you have to inspect what you expect," Bell said. "I can go back to my commissioners, and tell them what I saw in their districts. But, if I didn't come out here, if Warden Smith didn't come out here, if Capt. Amey [Clayton County Department of Corrections Capt. Ray Amey] didn't come out here, we wouldn't know what's going on."

Labat said he and other Atlanta Department of Corrections officials are looking forward to implementing their own version of Clayton County's program after having a chance to see how it has worked out for the county.

"I think we've learned a lot, and we're excited about this," he said. "In as much as learning what the chairman has been able to accomplish, and learning how receptive the community has been to this, it falls right in line with what we're trying to do ... It's an opportunity for us to have a cleaner, safer City of Atlanta."