Driving past the park last weekend, Destin resident David Wood said he saw a dozen or so inmates playing basketball while officers sat in lawn chairs.
"There was a piece of heavy equipment off to side. It would be my guess they were waiting on something," he said. "Seems like a waste of taxpayer money to have a dozen employees sitting in lawn chairs on a Friday and Saturday. There could've been a better use of county employees' and inmates' time if they didn't have any work for them."
According to Major Stan Sunday, director of the Walton County Department of Corrections, the inmates were just taking a break to "shoot some hoops" in between citizens delivering their trash. The quarterly clean-up days are the county's answer to keeping the community free of unsightly waste dumped in the woods or on the side of the road. Inmates collected approximately 4000-pounds of trash at last weekend's clean-up.
The department has received calls about inmates working in the community in the past, but Sunday said it's not a common complaint. Commissioner Sara Comander has been working with inmates since 2004 when she was the public information coordinator with the Clerk of Court’s office. Since taking office as a commissioner in 2006, she has worked alongside the inmates at community clean-ups and has never heard any complaints about the program.
"I find them respectful, decent and more than willing to work," she said.
While Wood says the inmates are probably “fine citizens,” he told The Sun he would rather them play ball on their own court — especially since the jail does have a court of its own.
"It's not a nice public image for the county," he said. "What if you wanted to take your kids to the park or if your 13-year-old wanted to go to the park with some friends?"
The Florida Model Jail Standards and the Florida Corrections Accreditation Standards requires that inmates have the opportunity to have a minimum of three hours of outdoor exercise per week, weather permitting.
To work inside and outside of the jail facilities is considered a privilege and requires inmates to go through an initial classification and an objective classification interview. Inmates allowed to work outside their cell are called trustees.
"It is through this process that their eligibility to become and work as a trustee is determined," Sunday said. "Obviously, not all inmates are eligible. Of those that are eligible to work as a trustee, some are restricted to working inside the facility due to their classification and risk assessment. Others, again based on their classification and the approval of the support services lieutenant, are eligible to work outside the facility."
According to the Walton County Department of Corrections policy, inmates are selected based upon current and past charges, disciplinary records and overall adaptation to the jail environment. The eligibility of any inmate to participate in the work program is solely the decision of the classification department.
Inmates granted the privilege to work outside the jail perform tasks countywide such as trash pick-up, lawn maintenance, building maintenance and roadwork and right-of-way maintenance. They are a common sight along the side of the road, even along Scenic Highway 98. Anytime an inmate is working outside the facility, he or she is accompanied by an officer or a trained, certified county employee.
"The chance to work outside in the community helps occupy their time and energy doing something productive," Sunday said. "Many jobs have the potential for them to learn a vocation or trade, thus helping them with their chances of gaining meaningful employment upon their release and becoming productive members of society — and the inmate labor is a tremendous resource for the county."
Should a complaint makes its way to the Walton County Department of Corrections, Sunday said he would investigate the complaint to see if the inmate supervisor acted according to policy and procedure or if it was a matter of perception and lack of understanding.
"Either way, we decide whether to continue or discontinue the work they are performing in that particular location," he said. "If a resident is not comfortable with something we are doing, the first question I would ask is what happened? What are the circumstances? Why are they not comfortable? Based on what they told me, I would decide what course of action was most appropriate."
Comander adds that the inmates are from the county jail, where offenses are typically minor compared to those serving time in prisons.
Despite Wood’s objections, others on the Sun’s Facebook page thought the program had merit.
"Would you prefer them to be in stocks with folks throwing rotting fruits and vegetables at them?" asked firefighter and paramedic Bob Wells. "I am sure a little recreation wouldn't hurt them."
"If no one is using the courts why not?" asked Marleigh Andersen. "No harm, no foul."