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    Jail inmates will get swamp duty

    Starting next week, work crews from the Pinellas jail will help the county get rid of pesky plants in St. Petersburg's Sawgrass Lake Park.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2002


    Terry Inhulsen figures that two-thirds of the 400-acre Sawgrass Lake Park, where he's the assistant supervisor, is infested with pesky Brazilian pepper trees and air potato vines.

    But taking the plants out of a swamp is no easy task.

    It means cutting a path into the woods. Sometimes, wading through muck. Cutting through branches. And finally, spraying tree-killing chemicals on the trunks.

    Where could he find so many workers?

    Pinellas county has had a hiring freeze since Sept. 11, and the park department alone is short 24 staffers. Park volunteers help out, but there aren't enough of them either.

    So Inhulsen asked whether the department could use other cheap labor: county jail inmates.

    Next week, the department's first inmate work crew is set to head out to the swamp. If the program works at Sawgrass Lake, in north St. Petersburg, park officials hope to put inmates to work at parks throughout Pinellas.

    Other inmate crews work for several county and city departments, usually doing road work or maintaining vehicles -- but the prospect of prisoners in a public park may seem a little more threatening.

    However, the county has set up several safeguards, said park department director Liz Warren.

    Only nonviolent inmates are allowed on work crews. They'll be closely supervised, with at least one county employee watching every four inmates. And they'll work in remote areas of Sawgrass Lake, where the public rarely ventures, Warren said.

    "We won't be dealing with murderers or anything like that," she said. "And they'll be bused into an area the public would never be near anyway. Most likely, unless they read about it in the St. Pete Times, they'll never know this work is going on."

    Park board members approved the idea this month. If park officials expand it further, the proposal may go to commissioners in May or June.

    "They've been successfully used in other areas," said Ramona Updegraff, park board chair. "And we certainly do need the labor terribly."

    In other parks, inmates could remove more exotic plants, clear land or help plant new trees and shrubs, Warren said. Such parks could include John Chesnut Sr. Park in East Lake, Lake Seminole Park and Boca Ciega Millennium Park in Seminole.

    "I would rather we test it in one location and make sure it's something we want to repeat," Warren said.

    Jail inmates don't get paid, but they earn one day off their sentences for every 5 days they work, said Capt. Pete Nesbitt of the Sheriff's Office.

    The office reviews each inmate's entire criminal record, not just what he or she is imprisoned for, to make sure the inmate has committed no violent crimes, Nesbitt said.

    Inhulsen is just looking forward to getting rid of his park's Brazilian pepper plants. They spread rapidly, choking out native plants and disrupting the animals' homes.

    "You kill one, two start," Inhulsen said. "You kill two, ten start. You just can't keep up."

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