Interim study supports use of prison labor

Sep 14, 2012
by WLJ

During this month’s interim study on certification of inmate labor for cedar harvesting, hosted by state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-OKC, a status review of cedar proliferation was conducted to aide in assessing options for bringing “the enemy” to its knees.

According to Dom Garrison, associate state director of Economic Development, Business and Industry Services for Career Tech, inmate labor is a viable part of the battle strategy when tackling the state’s greatest enemy: Eastern Red Cedar.

In setting the stage for Garrison’s remarks, Clay Pope, executive director of Oklahoma Conservation Districts, detailed an assessment of where we are at present and what it will take to gain a stronghold in the war on cedar.

“We will lose 12 million acres by 2015 at our present 300,000-acre-per year rate of infestation. Cost-share programs need to be funded for cedar removal as well as other viable options,” Pope stated.

Without increased intervention on all fronts, Pope estimates that for wildfire, Oklahoma’s annual loss will equal or exceed $107 million, wildlife $124 million, and grazing lands $205 million. With Oklahoma having lost more than 100,000 acres this fire season alone, that estimate will surely rise. While praising all cedar control efforts to date, Pope stated that he has observed Oklahomans discussing cedar issues since he was a child without much improvement in gaining real footing.

Morrissette hosted interim study 12-034, after adding an amendment last session to Senate Bill 1539, by state Sen. Josh Brecheen and state Rep. Don Armes, allowing for the use of prisoners on public and private lands for cedar harvesting. Morrissette now would like to see inmates who participate in such programs certified through Career Tech to reduce recidivism and raise employability.

Career Tech has had successful experience heading such projects since 2002 and Garrison has been certifying inmates since 1971 in all areas of job training. Garrison said most recently, inmates have been involved in reclaiming and restoring the historic sites and buildings at Lake Murray State Park near Ardmore. “This has been a true partnership among the Department of Corrections, the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Career Tech. Tourism received a federal grant to purchase materials and supplies for the reconstruction, but the funds could not be used for labor to accomplish the tasks. Career Tech and Corrections were brought into the project to supply inmate labor and to ensure the inmates were credentialed and trained for “real world” employment once released. There have been well in excess of $1 million of improvements to structures at the park since the project began. Additionally, over 65 percent of the inmate workers gained employment in the construction industry after release from custody. The appropriation from the legislature has allowed Career Tech to hire an employee to teach and verify skills and to supervise the day-to-day work of the inmates,” said Garrison.

Another possible aide-decamp in the cedar war could be of the four-legged variety. Dr. Steve Hart from Langston University contributed to mapping out a comprehensive attack by use of goat herds. Goats love to eat cedar and other underbrush and can easily be managed in an assault to regain farm and ranch lands as well as urban reclamation. Inmates could be double certified as both tree cutter/harvesters and livestock managers through Career Tech by combining resources.

“We need all hands on deck!” said Morrissette.

“We’ve heard from the experts and they are telling us that our very way of life is under siege by Eastern Red Cedar. I know that we can’t ignore the enemy any longer. It will take creative fiscal liaisons to build an effective arsenal. Oklahoma has tolerated the encroachment of this enemy to threaten the budget of every program, of every agency, department, school the state. We are bleeding dollars to this wooden soldier!” said Morrissette.

Concerns were expressed by Renee Watkins, director of institutions at the Department of Corrections, for carefully choosing inmate candidates for enlistment in cedar removal programs but she and others agreed that 10-man squads could be formed for as little as $190,000 and that figure would include adequate equipment and guard power. Garrison concurred by adding that funding such a pilot program in cooperation with Career Tech could be a win-win.

Three representatives were present from area equipment companies to provide cost information: Bobcat of Oklahoma, Central Dirt and Cleanup, and Marshall Tree Saw. Dan Dunagan of Marshall Tree Saw said that his company has a variety of saw types that are not cost prohibitive and that offer greater security options being attached to a skid steer.

“Eastern Red Cedar was brought to Oklahoma to help with wind breaks in the dust bowl and the trees are still building their impenetrable front-line defense upon millions of acres with each one drinking 80 gallons of fresh water every day. On behalf of my constituents, there are too many important unfunded projects to allow this enemy of the people free range. I’ll never give up the fight,” said Morrissette.

Morrissette will host a public hearing at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, in Room 432A of the state capitol to allow input from the public on solutions and to review last session’s measure, House Bill 2695, the Oklahoma Resource Reclamation Act, that will have its second filing in the coming legislative session. — WLJ