Jail trustee: A good gig but a job nobody wants to hold for long

Harold Laursen liked working at the Pierce County Jail well enough six years ago that he took another job there in July.

Still, the 42-year-old Tacoma man hopes the laundry-room gig is his last there.

Laursen, serving time for drug possession charges, is one of about 120 inmates who help keep the jail running as part of a voluntary work program that comes with greater freedom and privileges.

He was incarcerated on separate charges in 2008 when he first started working in what jail officials call the Trustee Program.

“This time I came back, I figured, why not?” Laursen said Wednesday.

Trustee inmates are among the best behaved at the jail, and when away from their bunks aren’t supervised as closely as others. Sometimes one corrections officers oversees 8 trustees at once.

Some are pending trial, others are serving short sentences. They work throughout the jail instead of being confined to their living area all day.

Despite that freedom, it wasn’t until Saturday that someone escaped from the program, which administrative Lt. Patti Jackson, who oversees it, said has been around for years. The jail has always used inmate labor in some fashion, and she said about 10 years ago the program was given its workplace structure.

“The motivation to stay is much higher than the motivation to leave,” Jackson said.

If they escape, they face stricter confinement when incarcerated again, she said.

Richard Robinson, 31, was the first to flee, when he was working in the kitchen area, hopped a fence and left, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. He has not yet been found.

Robinson was at the jail awaiting trial on charges in connection to a June burglary in Tacoma. Now he’s also charged with second-degree escape.

Inmates who are not trustees wouldn’t have been allowed in the area where Robinson escaped, Troyer said. Should he wind up back at the jail, the Trustee Program won’t be an option.

Workers must have a history of good behavior while incarcerated, and their crimes or alleged crimes can’t be especially violent.

The Sheriff’s Department says trustees save the jail from having to pay for minimum wage labor.

Some help prepare the three daily meals for roughly 1,200 inmates, and others keep living areas clean. Those with the most privileges help pick up trash around the county, among other jobs.

“Using inmate workers in the jail accomplishes two things: It puts inmates to work on things which need to be done, and it saves the taxpayers over a million dollars every year,” Sheriff Paul Pastor said in a statement.

There’s no pay for what typically are eight-hour work days, but the inmates who participate get some perks. If a judge allows, they may be able to work off court fees in the program, for instance.

There’s also a coffee pot and a cold-water dispenser in their living area, and trustees get new change of clothes daily, compared to other offenders who get a new set twice a week.

Fridays they earn a bag of chips and soda for their work.

“Pay day,” the inmates joke.

When the group does well, everyone’s name is put into a drawing for goody bags containing soup, candy and other treats.

Ryan Morgan, 30 of Sumner, won recently.

“It was delicious,” he said.

Morgan is a morning baker, responsible for making cakes, dinner rolls and other food.

“I’ve been coming in and out of here since I was 19,” he said about the jail.

After he returned in August, pending trial for robbery and gun possession charges, he joined the trustee program for the first time.

“I decided to do something different,” he said. “It’s definitely helped me change my perspective and my views, and what I’m going to do when I get out. It gives you a structure.”

He’d like to work on a fishing boat when released, but said he’d consider a job as a baker if that doesn’t happen.

Lilran Goe, 30 of Tacoma, works in the kitchen, cutting up vegetables and slicing the cakes Morgan bakes.

“It’s time out of your cell, and a good deed,” he said.

He’s halfway through a 26-day stay in the jail for missing a court date. He hopes to resume working as a janitor after he’s released.

“It makes your day go by faster,” he said about the program.

While there’s less oversight of the trustees than other inmates, precautions are still taken, Jackson said. Cakes are cut with dough cutters, instead of knifes. And the tools are tethered to the tables. Inmates are still checked into and out of their living area.

Laursen, who plans to return to mechanic work, has a little more than a week left at the jail, where he’s been since July 25. He’ll get out in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family and soon will get to see his new baby.

His time in the trustee program has been positive, he said, and he thinks the jobs have given him skills to use in other work scenarios.

Both he and jail staffers hope he never has reason to reapply for the trustee program.

“I’m not shooting for three times,” he said.