"Fun" is the operative word Deputy Matthew Thomas uses with the inmates working in the Sheriff's Office Community Work Force program.
"I tell my inmates if you're not having fun, then you shouldn't be out here," said Thomas, who was honored last week as the Correctional Employee of the Year.
Four years ago, Thomas started out at the Sheriff's Office Work Release Center, switching out of the air-conditioning and heating business where he worked for three years. He went through the Sheriff's Office six-month academy training program, moved to the Adult Detention Center and returned to Work Release where for the past one-and-a-half years, he has been the only work force deputy. In that role, he works with a team of five to seven inmates, taking them to job sites and overseeing the work they do as he works alongside them.
"I like dealing with inmates one-on-one versus being on the road," Thomas said, adding that he has the chance to get to know and build rapport with the inmates. He tells them the basics of each work assignment and lets them approach the jobs as they choose within certain guidelines. "My giving them respect makes them feel better about what they're doing. It makes my job a lot easier."
MINIMUM-SECURITY inmates convicted of non-violent crimes are allowed to apply for the work release program at the invitation of Sheriff's Office staff following their court order and a background check. The inmates have to appear before a panel of deputies for acceptance into the program.
"This is a program for them to get back in the community and around people," Thomas said.
The inmates are required to work for 30 days with Thomas before they can move up to the work-release program, which allows them 12 hours off site to look for and work at jobs. Both the work force and work release inmates stay at the Work Force Center.
"I like to see the inmates perform a community service for the county," Thomas said. "Once we start a project and finish it, it usually looks nice. That's the reward for the inmates and myself."
Thomas sets up the inmates' work assignments or tasks them with the assignments requested by the Sheriff's Office. In general, the inmates provide upkeep and maintenance for county and community facilities, work that saves taxpayer expense. They use tools and supplies purchased through the inmate canteen, the collection of extra charges added to food and other items inmates are allowed to purchase at the Adult Detention Center and the Work Release Center.
"He does a little bit of everything. It's more than picking up trash on the side of the road," said Major Robert Mulligan, division commander for Corrections and Court Services.
DURING A TYPICAL WEEK, the inmates cut grass at county and public safety buildings for four work days and on the fifth day, work on a variety of projects. The projects include painting and landscaping county buildings, moving furniture and doing remodeling work, and power washing graffiti from tunnels and walls through the Graffiti Abatement Program.
"The Sheriff's Office Community Work Force is more than just a group that does general maintenance on county facilities. They also do community work," said Kraig Troxell, public information officer for the Sheriff's Office.
For the community, the inmates add and maintain trails; work on park projects, including removing dead trees and underbrush; and provide a variety of services for the Public Library's annual book sale. Last month, the inmates planted 400 trees along Loudoun's section of the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. They removed gang-related graffiti along Route 7 and Sterling Boulevard in January, built a shed for jail storage in winter 2002 and installed two separate two-mile bike and horse trails near Route 659 last spring.
"He's very energetic and committed to running the program, and evidence of that is the accomplishments of the program over the past few years," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson.
Mulligan pointed out that Thomas was selected for the award by his peers in the division for Corrections and Court Services. "I get nothing but great comments for all that he does," Mulligan said. "He's good with everybody he works with in the community. I don't know of anybody that couldn't or wouldn't like the guy."
THOMAS, a Pennsylvania native, lives in Charlestown, W.V. with his wife Danielle Thomas, a first-grade private school teacher.
"I would like to thank my supervisors for allowing me to have this job," Thomas said. "This is what I want to do. ... It's a good job to have. It's honest work ... and I get to be outside."
Thomas hopes the Sheriff's Office can follow plans to hire a second work force deputy assigned with developing a second work force crew. "Right now, we don't have a big enough crew," he said.
Thomas was honored as part of National Correctional Officers and Employees Week from May 4-10. The Corrections Division consists of 95 employees who work for the Adult Detention Center, Courts Security, Civil Process and Work Release.