Suffolk County lets low-risk inmates work outside

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and a Suffolk inmate discuss how the sheriff's Labor Assistance Program, in which inmates spruce up nonprofit and government properties, is getting Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for disabled kids ready for summer. Videojournalist: John Paraskevas (April 15, 2013)

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The four men in orange, short-sleeve jumpsuits spent hours raking mulch at a youth camp overlooking a scenic lake, despite the chilly breeze.

Weather aside, the work in Center Moriches was the most freedom the prisoners enjoyed all day before heading back to their cells at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead.

Some of the inmates raking Monday have previously picked up superstorm Sandy debris and revamped the dining hall at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck campgrounds as part of the Suffolk County Sheriff's vocational training program.

It allows nonviolent inmates considered "minor offenders with minimal or no risk to the public" to use some of their trade skills at the request of nonprofit and governmental agencies.

Bridget Costello, camp director, said she requested help from the program in September.

"They have completed so many tasks here, starting with the removal of many trees which were lost in Sandy," she said. "We were very happy with what they did for us."

The inmates, all of whom are sentenced to less than a year in jail and work for free, are chosen according to security risk, said Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. The men are supervised at job sites by armed corrections officers at all times, officials said.

"It's a great program," DeMarco said. "It helps them get back into a work cycle. It breaks the monotony of the day in jail and makes them feel like they are giving back to the community."

The rehabilitation program started five years ago and provides a structured alternative to incarceration, and hundreds of inmates have been part of the program, officials said. Currently there are between 75 and 100 inmates involved.

"Everything we do here is for a good cause," said Robert Mahoney, 29 of North Babylon, who had electrical and carpentry training before being convicted of a DUI. He is expected to be released in May.

"I'm thankful for the program," Mahoney said. "It integrates you back into society, and it's not far from what you was doing on the outside."

Participants, who are subject to searches, typically work all week, officials said. They are not allowed to work for private companies or at homes.

Inmates have painted and landscaped at different sites, such as at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck, in a wooded area adjacent to a cemetery off Chet Swezey Road.

The camp, which reopens this summer, aims to help youths with disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome and hearing and vision impairments.

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