The Oakdale Animal Shelter has found an unlikely source of manpower within the Alternative Work Program (AWP) to help bridge the gap between budget cuts and community need without costing the city a dime.
The Alternative Work Program is available to inmates with sentences of less than 365 days who work in the community in lieu of going to jail.
This program, which came into existence in 1987, allows county, city and state government agencies to acquire manual labor from low-risk and minimum security offenders, which normally would not be available. It also allows participants to improve the community at 40 local sites while reducing the jail population.
Inmates pay $10 a day to participate in the program, thus alleviating the burden to the taxpayers.
When the Oakdale Animal Control took on the added responsibility of Riverbank’s animal services almost three years ago, Animal Control Officer Dan Hilgren (formerly with the Stanislaus County Sheriff Department) enlisted the services of the AWP to help with some of the shelter duties that were time-consuming, such as cleaning and sanitizing the kennels.
“We benefit a lot from the AWP,” Hilgren said. “They do a lot for us and it keeps Danielle free to run the shelter.”
The inmates, generally around 14, arrive bright and early at the shelter to move the dogs so their kennels can be scrubbed and sanitized, linens washed, and otherwise tidied. They weed, mow, and do light landscaping such as picking up those prickly ball seed pods that end up all over the place, and clean the animal shelter office.
It’s about four hours’ worth of work that used to be done by the shelter attendants and animal control officers.
And, if there’s not enough work to keep them busy, they pick up spent shells at the ammunition range next door.
“There’s always a job here for them to do,” said Danielle Hilgren, Animal Control Assistant. “They’re like my extra hands.”
Animal Control Officer Kelly Vassallo said because of the AWP workers, among the benefits, she’s been freed to run more calls. “I can handle the calls without having to shut down the shelter and we’re open longer. It’s a huge benefit to the community,” she said.
While the benefits to the shelter are obvious, the benefits to the inmates themselves are no less apparent.
“It’s actually pretty good,” said AWP worker Robby Fox.
Fox is serving time for a DUI and he agreed enlisting in the AWP was a good choice for him.
“The animals are well taken care of and it’s a good feeling to be productive and helpful. It’s better than sitting in a cell that’s for sure.”
Fox said in addition to the Oakdale shelter, he has reported to Woodward Reservoir on a work detail to clean bathrooms and pick up garbage.
“We need more programs like this,” Fox said. “It frees up space in the jails for the more dangerous criminals.”
And they get full credit for an eight-hour day, even if they only work for three hours.
“They really like it,” Hilgren said of the AWP workers. “And they get to interact with the animals.”
Certain criteria must be met to remain enrolled in the AWP, which includes a urine test. Also, probation violations will revoke the AWP enrollment and immediately reinstate their previous jail sentence.
The overcrowding issue created the need for the AWP work force but the participants have certainly been put to good use.
Recently, the AWP workers were assigned to the Crime Reduction Team, Rural Crime Detectives, and officers from Fish and Game as they participated in a clean-up project along the Tuolumne River. Trash thrown along the river bed and into the water had accumulated to the point that it looked like a landfill.
The Crime Reduction Team put together a project to help clean-up the trash and help protect the rivers. Approximately 10 inmates currently assigned to the Sheriff’s Office AWP were used to clean the trash and filled a large Bertolotti trash container with the garbage they picked up.
Inmates found grocery store carts, mattresses, trash and a syringe near the water during the clean-up.