The county is cooperating with Alabama State Ethics Commission investigators, Probate Judge Ryan Robertson said. Robertson said he met with an investigator on June 6. The following day the investigator requested information about Owen’s use of and payments to the county’s inmate work program, Robertson said.
Robertson said he’s not sure what exactly the investigator is looking for or what triggered the investigation.
“It’s a little disturbing and I’m a bit nervous about it,” Robertson said.
But, he said, he’s sure the county has been doing things correctly.
The Alabama State Ethics Commission does not confirm or deny whether it is doing an investigation or whether it has received a complaint, said Theresa Davis, legal research assistant at the commission.
Owen said he also had talked to the investigator and immediately went to the Sheriff Joe Jacks to see if he had done anything wrong.
Owen said he asked the sheriff on Thursday for the agreement an employer signs to hire inmates through the program. Reading it over, Owen discovered a rule that prohibits taking the inmates out of the state, he said.
He has taken inmates to Atlanta to work for him there, Owen said. On state ethics forms, Owen lists his job as construction manager for the Candler Building in Atlanta. The building is also the location of C.T. Baker and Associates. According to records in the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, Owen is the CEO of that company.
John Hamm, director of member services for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the state Legislature outlined inmate work-release programs in a 1976 law. The law details which inmates are eligible for the program and how they are to be treated as employees, including payment, Hamm said.
The inmates should receive at least minimum wage, but should receive the prevailing wage for the job they are hired to do, Hamm said.
“They didn’t want inmates displacing workers, and they didn’t want inmates being taken advantage of,” Hamm said of the law.
Screening employers is left up to the Sheriff’s Office’s discretion, Hamm added.
Jacks said he knows all the employers in the program and they have to sign an agreement outlining all the rules. Owen signed an agreement on Jan. 3, 2006, said Lane Kilgore, jail administrator. Owen said he must have forgotten about the agreement.
In Cleburne County, the current program has been in place since 2003, Jacks said. There was a smaller work-release program before Jacks took office, but it dealt only with paying jobs for inmates, he said. After being elected, Jacks added community service jobs to the program and hired a full-time corrections officer to run it, he said.
It’s a good program, Jacks said. It provides money for prisoners to pay their fines, child support or court costs and it gives them a way to learn new skills that they can use to find a job after they have served their time. In fact, he said that some of the former inmates now work in jobs they started working as inmates.
He looks at it as a rehabilitation program, but it also helps the county, Jacks said. The county has dozens of projects built through the program, he said.
“If it ain’t been built, it’s been kept clean by ’em,” Jacks said.
The program is voluntary, Kilgore said. The inmates can’t participate until they’re sentenced which can be months after they arrive, he said. The administrators take the time to get to know the inmates, he said.
It’s a pretty big risk, Jacks said. The inmates have already proven they can be a danger to society, so releasing them to a job takes some trust, Jacks said. Inmates convicted for violent crimes such as robbery, murder or rape are disqualified from the program, Kilgore said.
Inmates wishing to participate must sign an agreement form spelling out all the terms of the employment.
Cleburne County’s program
On Thursday there were 19 inmates eligible for the program. Sixteen of the inmates were out working and half were receiving money for their work. The rest were doing uncompensated community service. Inmates were signed out by the County Road Department, the County Courthouse, the Mountain Center, Midway Sales and Cleburne County elementary and middle schools. Inmates only work at the schools when there are no children present, Jacks said. Owen had signed out two inmates for 6.5 hours that day.
Owen takes prisoners out nearly every day, Kilgore said. Much of the work they do with him is community service, he added. Owen said the inmates he took out Thursday were paid for their work by Cleburne County Emergency Medical Services. He is currently working on a project to add bedrooms to the EMS building, Owen said.
When the inmate is paid, the check is accepted by the work-release program which keeps 25 percent in a Work Release Fund. That fund helps pay the salary of the correctional officer who runs the program, purchases things like hygiene products, mattresses and uniforms for the prisoners, Kilgore said. The rest is applied to restitution, court costs, fines or child support and placed in a fund for the inmate, Kilgore said.
In the last decade, Jacks said, only one or two inmates have walked off their work detail. They didn’t disappear, they just came back with liquor on their breath, Jacks said. Most inmates who have been through the program don’t come back through the system, he added.
“Overall we’ve had a damn good success rate,” Jacks said.
Owen declined to comment on whether there were any other rules he might have broken.
Sheriff Joe Jacks said he hasn’t received any requests for information about the inmate work release program from the Ethics Commission investigator.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.