Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall Credit: MDOT

Year-round along the shoulders of Mississippi’s roads, women and men in striped pants can be seen bent-low, filling bags with the bits and pieces drivers leave behind: cigarette butts, water bottles, receipts and more.

“It makes some of our highways look like trash bins,” Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation spends nearly $3.2 million on programming related to the litter that builds up on state highways. In conjunction with projects like the Trash Bash and Adopt-a-Highway/Interchange and litter education programs, the state relies on the labor of imprisoned people to clean the roads.

Hall said, “MDOT’s partnership with Mississippi Sheriffs Offices and municipalities to use prison labor for litter removal has been extremely helpful in dealing with this problem and well received by the public. It is a win-win for everyone.”

The Inmate Litter Removal Program is a partnership between the Mississippi Transportation Commission and a county’s sheriff’s department or a city’s police department.

“They take out inmates for pickup of state right-of-way,” Connie McMullan, a state anti-litter coordinator, said. ” ‘Don’t trash Mississippi.’ That’s the motto around here. We’ve got to have people who care enough to not put trash in our water and on the side of the road.”

Of Mississippi’s 82 counties, 83 percent participate in the Inmate Litter Removal Program. To enter the program, counties agree to a memorandum of understanding. MDOT funds a deputy for supervision, trash bags for incarcerated people to use, and “workers ahead” signs. In addition, the agency sells the participating sheriff’s department a used vehicle for one dollar.

Although each sheriff’s department determines what kinds of charges preclude participation, Sheriff Jackie Knight of Newton County said that typically only people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes are allowed to participate. But even then, inmates have a few hoops to jump through before they can go out with the crew:

“They have to write a letter saying they want to participate,” Knight said, “and then sign a release form. If they didn’t want to be apart of it, they just don’t. Most would rather be outside than be sitting in a jail cell.”

For Ron Welch, a prison law attorney, labor programs offer a rare deal to people in the prison system: “I’m sure there are arguments against this program. ‘You shouldn’t be working prisoners,’ but these guys are getting paid. They’re getting paid in days off their sentence. Time is the most valuable thing inside (the prison).”

Each local department offers a different amount of time for days worked in programs like the Inmate Litter Removal Program.

For Welch, the benefits of the system are huge: “Prisoners are helping out the county by cleaning them up. They are getting time off their sentence for providing that help. The state is saving money because they aren’t having to keep them locked up as long. There is no just other opportunity like that in the system.”

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