(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
NORTH PLATTE -- The superintendent of the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park in North Platte says that labor provided by offenders from the Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook was invaluable when the park started the restoration of Buffalo Bill's massive red board-and-batten barn two years ago.
"It was a huge project," Steve Kemper said, one that involved removing and reinstalling 7,000 linear feet of battens and scraping, sanding, priming and painting a 70x140-foot, 40-foot-tall barn. The project, Kemper said, would have been much more daunting without the offenders' labor.
Rick Haney, the activities director at McCook Public Schools, feels that offenders' contributions to school projects are immeasurable. Haney said, "In the last three years, we've worked with lots of crews and lots of (road crew) corporals, and they've all been very productive. They're a huge asset to the activities facilities in the McCook school system."
Anne Dowd, director of the McCook Humane Society animal shelter, said, "Never once has anyone ever mouthed off, or refused to help. No one has ever been rude, or disrespectful, or disruptive."
In October, the Work Ethic Camp admitted its 1,000th offender, a unofficial milestone. By the end of the month, the camp had admitted a total of 1,033 offenders and the total number of donated hours since 2001 reached 168,111. That means that most offenders through the doors of the camp have donated, on average, 162.74 hours of labor -- or four 40-hour weeks -- to schools, communities, nonprofit organizations and county and state government entities since the camp opened in April 2001.
An offender must earn the privilege to become a member of a "road crew" that leaves the WEC camp for outside day projects. WEC Case Manager Kyle Clapp said offenders apply and interview for road crew positions, just as they would for any job.
"They've proven themselves through Phase 1, with no issues inside," Clapp said, adding, "It's a privilege to work outside."
The value of the offenders' donated labor is hard to determine for many of the entities requesting assistance from the offenders.
"Without the offenders' help, things would not get done so efficiently around the animal shelter," Dowd said. Offenders show up daily to walk dogs, clean kennels, move cages and dust, mop and sweep. "They scurry around like little mice, doing things," Dowd said. "They help us out immensely. They're such an asset to us."
Dowd said the offenders have never been anything but pleasant, polite and respectful. "We've never even had one use bad language," she said. "They always mind their manners."
For the good behavior and the development of good work habits, Dowd credits the positive influence of the road crew corporals and the counseling, schooling and training programs at the Work Ethic Camp.
Steve Kemper, at Buffalo Bill's ranch, agreed that the offenders' supervision is a positive aspect of the offenders' rehabilitation. Kemper said he has experienced other prisoner-work projects at other parks throughout Nebraska, "and they're almost more trouble than they're worth." He explained that is not the case with offenders from the work camp in McCook because of the offenders' supervision by and direction from the corporals.
Rick Haney, of McCook Public Schools, said the supervision of the offenders is tremendous. "They keep them on task," he said. "We're blessed to have these corporals to work with the offenders."
Haney said he has watched many crews since the first crew helped with a high school locker room renovation project several years ago. He has watched, he said, as corporals not only supervise, but share their knowledge -- such as the carpentry and assembly skills used to build the bleachers at the track bowl west of the junior-senior high, and at the new concession stand-locker room at Weiland Field.
Haney said offenders helped move -- by hand and muscle -- thousands of pounds of steel bleacher framework from a canyon northeast of McCook to the track bowl and then assembled the bleachers from blueprints. He said offenders also helped install new scoreboards in the high school gym -- working on scaffolding 35 to 40 feet above the gym floor.
Offenders did preliminary ground work outside and finish work inside on the new concession stand at Weiland Field. They were also the major muscle when furniture from classrooms at East Ward and in the North Ward modulars were moved into the new elementary facility.
Haney said the school district strives to work with local contractors on its projects when it can. However, he said, the offenders' labor helps make projects affordable for the taxpayers who support the schools system and adds value to the funds given so generously by private donors.
Haney believes the offenders' donated labor is a win-win situation and a nice partnership between the school system and the work camp. "Our predominate focus," Haney said, "is not on mundane, no-brain activities for the offenders." They've been involved in projects, Haney said, that have helped them discover or develop specific skills. "We hope they benefit from the partnership, as well," he said.
Kemper called the WEC labor program a "real effective sort of partnership." While offenders and their supervisors are concentrating on one project, park staff is free to work on others.
Kyle Potthoff, director of public works for the City of McCook, said he appreciates the work of the offenders, as they free-up time for city employees to do other projects. "The offenders provides lots of manual labor," Potthoff said. "They're a huge asset to the city."
Art Skinner, highway maintenance supervisor for the Nebraska Department of Roads in McCook, said the offenders help with a lot of hand mowing and trimming in the summer and cleaning equipment in the winter.
Skinner said the offenders are doing jobs that may not get done otherwise because of time constraints on employees, or may not otherwise get done in a timely fashion.
"We work through their corporals," Skinner said. "They're all business. We've never had any discipline problems."
Kemper, too, said he has never had any disciplinary problems with the offenders. "They're extremely well supervised," he said. "The corporals work well with the offenders."
He continued, "It's good that these kids are getting a second chance ... a little hope, a future, a little opportunity."