Inmates going through trash is a common complaint in Columbus - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

Inmates going through trash is a common complaint in Columbus

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Picture of Hallowell's video Picture of Hallowell's video
Michael Hallowell Michael Hallowell
Pat Biegler, Director of Public Works Pat Biegler, Director of Public Works
COLUMBUS, Ga. - It was the second time Michael Hallowell saw inmates on work detail going through his neighbor’s garbage. So he took out his phone and started recording. He posted the video on Neighborhood Watcher’s Facebook page and it blew up with comments.

“I wasn’t expecting that kind of response,” says Hallowell. Click here to see Hallowell's video

The mayor and several other city officials reached out to him within a few hours of the post to let him know the problem was being taken care of.

Pat Biegler, the Director of Public Works, says this is just one of the many times they receive complaints about inmates sorting through the trash while they are on work detail.

“Our policy is that we definitely don’t tolerate it,” says Biegler. “If we get a complaint, and we do relatively frequently, then we will investigate if we have sufficient information to check on circumstances.”

In Hallowell’s situation, the thing that concerned him the most was that the driver didn’t seem to be paying attention while the inmate was sorting through the trash. The inmate spent about two minutes looking through the garbage as the truck was in parked.

“I was kind of shocked,” says Hallowell. “Not so much that they were going through the trash, but that it was blatantly being allowed.”

Biegler says they make it a priority to have their drivers be alert and check inmates hourly to make sure they haven't taken anything, but even though inmates are monitored, it’s just not possible to always have an eye on them.

“Keep in mind our truck drivers generally are up front and the inmates are in the back so they can't observe them 100% of the time,” says Biegler. “However, if they observe them doing it they're supposed to take action to stop them.”

If a driver is caught tolerating this kind of activity, the driver is suspended or fired, which has happened in the past. The city is able to look into this specific incident because Hallowell provided the truck number and time of day. Biegler says this type of information is necessary for the city to look into it.

The city's biggest concern with inmates going through trash is contraband. Inmates look for alcohol, cigarettes, food, whatever they can get their hands on.

“These inmates have a very bland diet. So they don’t mind eating out of the trash,” says Biegler.

Biegler says sometimes folks use the trash as drop spots, leaving items such as cell phones for inmates. Hallowell says he's thankful for the city's response and hopes raising awareness will make people report this kind of activity.

“I think with the publicity this has gotten, a lot more people are going to be diligent in trying to stop it from happening,” says Hallowell.

Public Works officials say inmates usually are not looking for personal information, but you're advised to take precautions by not throwing away documents with your personal information on them.

Inmates are issued a warning the first time they’re caught going through garbage. If it's a recurring problem, they're taken off work detail and punished. The city uses about 425 inmate laborers daily on outside work details and another 150 who work at the Muscogee County Prison. The city saves about $10 million a year by using inmates, according to the Muscogee County Prison website. City officials also say it’s beneficial to the inmates because they learn certain labor skills such as painting, plumbing, carpentry and engine repair and maintenance.

David Hurst

David Hurst, a graduate of the Univ. of Georgia, focuses on how your tax dollars are being spent.
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