Why inmates are boarding up Atlanta’s abandoned and vacant homes

Jail officials say new ‘Clean and Close’ program curbs blight, saves cash, helps inmates

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Photo credit: Joeff Davis
BLIGHT BUSTERS: Under the watch of a guard, an Atlanta City Detention Center inmate helps to "clean and close" an abandoned house in English Avenue.

Bradford Harper appreciates being outdoors. The 57-year-old native of Pelham, Ga., has worked for several hours on this crisp Thursday afternoon in late December, clearing brush, cleaning up trash, and boarding up an abandoned one-story home on Oliver Street in the English Avenue neighborhood.

“The work was outside,” says Harper, standing in the yard he helped clean with his fellow inmates. He admits the work is better than preparing food or cleaning inside the Atlanta City Detention Center, where he’s spent the past couple of months sitting in a cell following an arrest for public drinking that led to a disorderly conduct charge. “Picking up trash gives you a chance to get some fresh air.”

Harper that day was one of a dozen people working for the city’s “Clean and Close” program, a new initiative that uses inmates’ labor to curb blight in neighborhoods filled with abandoned or vacant properties. Last March the concept won Atlanta’s first-ever citywide employee idea competition and turned into a full-time operation three months later.

Formally approved by the Atlanta City Council last November, the program is one officials think will help address problems caused by the thousands of vacant homes in Atlanta. The program is a small part of City Hall’s overall effort to help neighborhoods combat negligent owners, clean up eyesore properties, and resolve other problems associated with blight.

Patrick Labat, Atlanta’s Office of Corrections chief, initially had doubts about the program’s effectiveness. But since the initiative launched, city jail inmates have cleaned up and boarded shut almost 40 different properties whose negligent owners have failed to secure the structures. In the process, the free labor has helped save the Atlanta Police Department’s code enforcement division approximately $320,000, improved mostly westside neighborhoods struggling with vacant properties, and provided some benefits to the people doing the work.

“Traditionally, you think of corrections in a space where we simply hold and detain people who have violated some law, or allegedly violated the law,” Labat says. “This allows us to get into the community.”

Five days each week, one Clean and Close crew works on a house identified by the city’s In Rem Review Board, which takes action against owners of buildings deemed unsuitable for human habitation or use. Before inmates and volunteers arrive at the house and start working, code enforcement officials inspect the homes for dead bodies, drug users and paraphernalia, or other potential hazards to workers. Once code enforcement officials give the go-ahead, jail guards transport the inmates to the site to pick up trash, trim trees and bushes, and assess the property.

The crew’s workers measure the doors and windows, drill wooden boards to cover those openings, and paint the boards gray. Vents are installed over holes that are cut into the walls to prevent mold from growing inside the house. Atlanta DOC Sgt. Ed Fambro says a project can take anywhere from two to five days to finish, depending on the lot’s condition. Labat estimates that it would cost a private contractor $3,000 to $15,000 to complete similar work on a single house.

Fambro says inmates must meet certain requirements to work outside the jail’s walls. Once a prisoner asks to join the Clean and Close crew, instead of working in the kitchen or on a cleaning detail, jail staff conducts medical and mental-health screenings to make sure they’re able to adequately perform the work.

Each participating inmate must not be a felon serving time for violent offenses such as rape or murder. For every 10 days of work completed, an inmate can get one day knocked off a sentence. City judges may also sentence individuals to perform community service for the Clean and Close program.

At least two DOC officers watch over a Clean and Close crew comprising 12 inmates and also ensure that the workers receive proper breaks, 10 minutes every hour and a 90-minute midday break; lunch; and water.

“There’s no risk to the neighborhood at all when it comes to this,” DOC Capt. Roy Johnson says. “We have three officers and a supervisor on every job, as well as APD [patrolling nearby] ... No one has tried to escape yet.”

By late 2015 Labat hopes to expand the Clean and Close program to include up to three crews. Part of that expansion includes using steel boarding. Atlanta City Council would need to approve the additional $200,000 expense, but he says it would better secure the closed properties and allow inmates to work faster by partnering with a private company.

“Steel boarding expansion allows us to do 30 to 40 properties a week,” Labat says. “It’s taken us months to do 33.”

Labat says the Clean and Close program will ultimately pay for itself in addition to providing public benefit. Once a property is boarded up and trash is removed, jail officials bill the owner for the expenses. If the bill goes unpaid, the city’s chief financial officer subsequently places a lien against the property in the county records for the project’s costs, filing and mailing costs, and 10 percent annual interest. The city ultimately recoups expenses, and negligent owners are on the hook.

Apart from helping improve neighborhoods and saving the city cash, Labat says the Clean and Close program helps inmates too. Rather than be assigned to kitchen or housekeeping duties, he considers it to be a “work detail with benefits” that can provide inmates with relevant work experience. In some cases, Johnson says, the inmates helping to board up houses are skilled laborers.

But Xochitl Bervera, co-director of the Racial Justice Action Center, criticizes the program for exploiting inmates as free labor. If Mayor Kasim Reed or Labat want to address blight, she says they would be better served by paying Atlanta residents a living wage to board up properties.

“Getting blighted properties in our neighborhoods under control should be a priority of the city” Bervera says. “But [this way is] the wrong solution to tackle the problem. The city could employ people or stop wasting taxpayer dollars on the jail.”

Harper, who’s nearing the end of his sentence, said the skills that he’s learned might serve him well upon release. He doesn’t want to return to his one-time job as a stocker. So what might he do next? “This type of work right here,” he says with a laugh. “Landscaping.”