Photo by Heather Middleton
By Kathy Jefcoats
Kathy Buntyn came home Thursday from her job with AirTran Airways, and was thrilled to find inmates doing yard work at a neighboring, abandoned house on Doncaster Road.
A big blue-and-white sign in the driveway let passers-by know the Clayton County State Prison inmates were doing a "Force Cleaning" of the property, which was left empty after a December fire.
"It's fantastic," said Buntyn. "I think it's great, because the house has been an eyesore for a while. It gives the inmates a chance to get out, and helps the county -- well, it just helps everybody."
Clayton County State Prison inmates save taxpayers more than $1 million by providing "force-cleaning" and other services, such as cutting grass and painting over graffiti, according to Warden Frank Smith, who said inmates have cleaned more than 300 houses and yards since September.
"Our inmates go to properties to make sure they are being maintained under code enforcement to prevent the community standard from dropping," he said. "We board up windows and doors with plywood, cover swimming pools, cut grass, whatever is needed."
The force-cleanings are done only after property owners are given the chance to do it themselves. The county tacks on the cost of the cleaning to the property owners' tax bill.
Smith said the service was privatized until last year, but it was not cost-efficient or timely. "Abandoned property is a problem all over the state, because of the downturn in the economy," he said. "The county had contracts with private companies, but they were expensive and slow, and stayed behind. It was a money-losing proposition."
Buntyn said she occasionally cut the grass next door when it got too high, and ran vagrants off the property.
"I like to watch out for the neighborhood when I can," said Buntyn, who has lived in her house since 1976. "This clean-up will help a lot."
Clayton County State Prison Capt. Ray Amey oversees about a dozen inmate clean-up crews across the county. In addition to boarding up windows and doors, he said, inmates will drain the pool behind the Doncaster house and cover it.
With warmer weather and sunshine, inmates also turn their attention to cutting grass.
"We put a lot of resources into force-cleaning, but we'll likely [soon] shift our priority to grass-cutting," said Smith.
Amey said crews also tackle Clayton County International Park, known locally as "The Beach."
"We've got 10 mowers being used by two crews, and we're hoping to add more, so we can have a third mowing crew this season," he said. "We also have a separate crew that just works with chain saws, cutting trees."
Inmates also wage war against graffiti.
"We offer an open invitation to anyone seeing a problem with graffiti in the public domain," Smith said. "Call us, and we will put paint on it. If the graffiti comes back, we will, too. We have more resources than they do, we're lawful, and maybe we can catch them and stop it."
Smith accepts paint donations for the cover-ups, too.
"White, gray and beige are the best for that," he said.
For paint donations, or to report graffiti, call (770) 477-3548.