Jail inmates in Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., take care of lawns, pick up trash, and paint over graffiti at 50 county facilities, 300 bus shelters, and nearly a dozen park-and-ride public transit stations, says the Washington Post. The roadside chain gangs of the early 20th century fell out of favor in the 1930s. Now, many local governments and states employ inmates to work in a host of money-earning public and private services. About 2,000 inmates in Maryland make everything from furniture and license plates to food products, and Virginia prison crews maintain rural highways. Revenue helps offset what it costs to feed inmates.
Fairfax’s quickly expanding program has taken on a new role: that of an unofficial complement to the cash-strapped Virginia Department of Transportation. County officials, facing an increasing number of calls from constituents upset about overgrown highway medians and poorly kept roads, have tasked the sheriff’s office with a new variety of jobs. The Great Depression forced many governments to turn over road construction projects to the rising number of jobless, said Alex Lichtenstein of Florida International University and author of “Twice the Work of Free Labor,” which chronicles the history of prison labor in the South. “It’s interesting to see the trend reversing,” he said.