April 4 2012 12:00 AM

Who come from state prison clearing brush along the River Trail

What do you do if your favorite running spot on the River Trail is overgrown with brush and unlikely to be on the city’s overworked and understaffed forestry department’s to-do list? If you’re Daniel Heyns, you call on some prisoners to do the work.

Heyns, director of the state Department of Corrections, recently moved from Jackson to Lansing. He’s also a runner.

“My boss, the director of the department, lives in Lansing and runs the River Trail. He loves it,” said Russ Marlan, Corrections Department spokesman. “He noticed during his runs, parts of it are very overgrown. It’s tough to run in some spots. So he contacted Mayor Bernero and offered to bring a work crew up here.”

That’s the story of how roughly 10 prisoners from a state prison in Chelsea came to Lansing every day for nearly a month to clear portions of the River Trail near Elm and Grand River parks. They would use little saws — “not chainsaws,” Marlan said — to cut back brush. Afterward, the city came by and removed it. The exercise yielded some “pretty good results” in February and March, Marlan said. However, it was a one-time deal and no future plans are in the works to bring prisoners back.

“Absolutely, bring back the chain gang,” Mayor Virg Bernero quipped last month when asked about state prisoners performing menial tasks for the city (they weren’t physically shackled together). Bernero, who was speaking on the television show “City Pulse Newsmakers,” said, “We took advantage of it,” when the state approached the city about the work. “It behooves me to work with state government. We listen to them and we get a good listening ear.

“We had things along the River Trail and in parks that weren’t getting done, that we couldn’t get done, that we weren’t gonna do,” Bernero said. “It’s not like we laid people off and brought in the prisoners. It was stuff that wasn’t getting done and we had no money to do.”

Brett Kaschinske, director of Lansing’s Parks and Recreation Department, said even though Ingham County has agreed to maintain 40 parks and some River Trail maintenance — snow plowing, mowing, trash and debris cleanup — “it doesn’t involve cutting brush. … This isn’t cart blanche any maintenance that happens is done by the county. It depends on what the situation is.”

Kaschinske said it’s not the first time the city has used prisoners to clear debris. He cited a tornado that blew through a few years ago. “They bring the individuals and staffing and we provide the scope of work,” he said. “It’s things the city can’t get to.”

It’s a rare occurrence these days, Marlan said, for the state to send prisoners out to do work for municipalities. The department has “largely scaled back on those” due to budget problems, Marlan said. While municipalities “paid a small fee, it was not enough to offset the costs of vans and officer salaries.” Marlan added that the city did not pay the state anything for the work. In years past, Marlan said, the state would agree to long-term contracts where crews showed up “every day of the week” to clean cemeteries or parks, citing a former agreement with the city of Mason. “We had to cancel those contracts. Now it’s sporadic assignments based on need.”

Offenders must meet certain criteria to qualify for Public Service Assignments. The Department of Corrections lists 15 criteria on its website, including not having a history of arson behavior, sexual offenses or a lifetime sentence.

The news raised a few City Council members’ eyebrows at a March 22 Ways and Means Committee meeting. At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar was unaware the city had done this. Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson said some might have concerns with the “shock and awe” of inmates working in the community, but was not against the idea. At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said it’s “definitely a concern,” citing possible public safety issues.

Marlan said the work was cut short three to four weeks because of concerns raised by local unions that it was taking away from seasonal employees’ jobs.

“I think the UAW raised those concerns,” said Lynne Meade, vice president of the Teamsters Local 580, which supervises the UAW workers “that used to do that work. Their work has gradually been given away and given away. We want to make sure the work is not given away completely.”

Dennis Parker, chairman of UAW Local 2256, could not be reached for comment.

But Marlan, of the state Corrections Department, said his boss is working with the Legislature to bring back more inmate worker programs.

“It’s kind of a rehabilitative process for inmates, promotes positive work ethics and gives back to the community,” Marlan said. “My boss believes in the inmate work crew program. … It’s a fundamental part of the rehabilitative process.”