Brevard sheriff putting inmates to work on all-volunteer 'chain gang'

Inmates remove dead fish, clean dog poop

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – In much of Brevard County, the "adopt-a-highway" signs along the roadside don't name a business or charity that supports the road cleanup.

In Brevard County, they read: "This highway is adopted by the Sheriff's chain gang, " meaning inmates clean up the side of the road.

Wednesday afternoon, they were piling old furniture and tree limbs that had been dumped along U.S. 1 Melbourne under a "no dumping" sign.

Last year, they cleaned up dead fish after the massive Indian River Lagoon fish kill.

They regularly do construction projects -- such as the horse barn they built last week -- paint walls, scrub floors and collect poop from the cages at the Brevard County Animal Shelter.

Sheriff Wayne Ivey has put Brevard County's inmates to work and he said it's saving the county money.

"Last year across the board they saved the county about $175,000 in manual labor," Ivey said.

The chain gang is just that -- a group of non-violent, low-risk inmates chained at their ankles, released during the day from jail to work under close supervision.

Ivey said it's entirely voluntary and it's the only chain gain in Florida and one of the few in the country.

"I think a lot of people are scared of the reaction they might get," Ivey said. "For me, I'm scared of not being able to tackle our crime rate."

Ivey said tackling the crime rate means not just keeping criminals out of jail but also keeping them from coming back to jail.

Ivey said the rate of reoffending -- or recidivism --  for male inmates is around 44 percent at the Brevard County Jail. 

"In 2017, it was zero (for chain gang inmates)," Ivey said. "Not one single member on the chain gang came back to jail in 2017. That's almost unheard of. And it's not because they didn't like the work. I think it's because they're learning to work together as a team, they're getting to be involved in positive things."

Chain gang member Marcus Ward, jailed on a charge of fraud to fund an opioid addiction, said the chain gang makes him feel like a human, not an inmate.

"You want to feel like you're doing something positive," Ward said as he picked up trash. "And they gave us that chance here. They encourage you to do better. And it feels like you're a part of something."

Chain gang member Lance Fort admitted he's been jailed 46 times and spent 9.5 years of his life locked up, which is about half the time that his 17-year-old daughter has been alive.

"I didn't know how to do anything," Fort said. "We just put up a horse ranch. Learned how to do carpentry. The value of a good hard day's work. Instead of stealing it, I can enjoy working for it." 

Fort promised  he would not be back a 47th time.

"Cause there comes a time in your life when you're going nowhere," Fort said. "I actually have a job set up, so I'm going to follow through with that. It's embarrassing but it's a first. I actually seem like I have hope this time."

Low-risk inmates report to the Brevard County Animal Shelter seven days a week mostly to clean and prep the shelter before it opens at 11 a.m.

They make sure it looks and smells clean so families looking to adopt feel welcome.

Before the sheriff took over the shelter, he said it was a disaster. The live release rate was 55 percent.

"When we first took over, there were cats in the ceiling," Ivey said. "When you consider sometimes we intake as many as 5,000 animals a year, to have a live release rate of 96 percent is almost unheard of."

Animal Services supervisors Dawn Farula and Aelita Mosebach said before the inmates came to work at the shelter, there was no time to spend with families looking to adopt.

"It was rough, really rough," Farula said. "All we did is clean all day long." 

Ivey said his wife Susan Anne came up with the idea of feeding specially-made doggie ice cream to the dogs at the shelter to break the ice between dogs and future families and help them bond. Ivey looked up the recipe and decided inmates could make the ice cream and even feed it to the dogs as treats. 

"We use inmate labor to make it," Ivey said. "It's very inexpensive to make. Works very nicely to calm down the dogs."

Families are also given the ice cream to feed to potential pets.

Inmate Melissa Coleman said caring for the animals gives them something to focus on while they're in jail.

"We get up very early, we get dressed very quickly and we're out the door and we have a schedule," Coleman said. "Those things are absolutely positive, especially for someone in prison. We really need that a lot."

Ivey said inmates put to work is a win-win for the community and the inmates themselves.

"The inmates are outside, working, repaying their debt to society," Ivey said. 

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.