Who are the inmates working around town?

Becky Vargo • Jul 10, 2017 at 10:00 AM

They arrive in a white van driven by an Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputy.

The men in tan clothing with orange T-shirts and vests put on gloves and start picking up garbage and boxes that have overflowed dumpsters in downtown Grand Haven.

They are Ottawa County Jail inmates assigned to the Sentenced Work Abatement Program (S.W.A.P.).

The debris was pushing through the gate area of the decorative dumpster corral.

“We’re taking away the excess because the dumpster won’t be emptied today,” Deputy Al Cortez said.

A nearby condominium resident thanked the workers for cleaning up the mess and making room for his own garbage.

Cortez, who is also a longtime Grand Haven resident, said crews clean out the city-owned dumpster areas almost every day. They also clean up cigarette butts and wash down the area.

Cortez said that residents and visitors don’t have anything to fear from these men. They are trustee-level inmates who are in jail because they haven’t paid child support, or have been convicted of drunken driving or possession of marijuana.

Someone convicted of a violent crime — even a simple resist arrest such as walking away — would not be allowed on the S.W.A.P. crew, Cortez said.

Every four days that an inmate works, he qualifies for one day off his sentence.

“The original reason for this is to get minimum-risk people out so there’s room for the more hardcore offender,” Cortez explained.

It also gives them a chance to get back to their homes and jobs, and hopefully become productive members of society again, the deputy said.

The day after the Fourth of July holiday, Cortez’s crew started work at Grand Haven City Beach, where they cleaned sand off the walkways and picked up garbage in the roadway along Harbor Drive. 

They regularly clean the bathrooms at the north pier fisherman’s parking lot and East Grand River Park.

Cortez said they would finish the day by cleaning up firework debris on Dewey Hill. Part of the reason they do that is to keep the paper from clogging the Musical Fountain.

“We assist Grand Haven DPW,” Cortez said. “We make Grand Haven pretty one day at a time.”

Cortez said the Sheriff’s Office has four S.W.A.P. crews. Two of them work full time in Grand Haven and Holland. One crew alternates between Georgetown Township and Jenison, while the fourth crew works five other areas.

The Sheriff’s Office published more information about the S.W.A.P. crews in a recent newsletter.

Inmates participating in the program must meet the following criteria: They must be non-violent offenders, they may not have outstanding warrants in other jurisdictions, they may not have criminal sexual conduct convictions, they may not have any history of escape or walk away attempts, and they will be removed from the program if their conduct is unsatisfactory or inappropriate.

S.W.A.P. benefits the community by offering low-cost labor to local governments and non-profit organizations. Corrections deputies supervise crews of 5-8 inmates.

Some of the work they do for cities and townships includes lawn care and basic landscaping, public restroom maintenance, litter and trash pickup, snow removal, and heavy lifting for community events and festivals.

In return for their work, they receive discounted rates for room and board, and may receive reduced sentences.

The program gives inmates a sense of purpose while keeping them active, the newsletter noted.

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