Doing time

County convicts help keep Caper Acres open

Butte County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch (above) and ACS workers (left to right) Michael Lewis, Ashley Phillips and Nathan Wright.

Butte County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch (above) and ACS workers (left to right) Michael Lewis, Ashley Phillips and Nathan Wright.

PHOTOs BY Tom Gascoyne

Late Monday morning (Nov. 4), workers in bright-green shirts worked within and directly outside Lower Bidwell Park’s Caper Acres, clearing brush and weeds, raking leaves, mowing and picking up trash at the heralded kids’ playground.

The 15-person crew was working under the supervision of four Butte County Sheriff’s Office employees because they are Alternative Custody Supervision (ACS) inmates who otherwise would be sitting at home under house arrest. Instead, they will be working in Bidwell Park two times a week for an indefinite period of time, helping keep Caper Acres open.

Butte County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch was in an upbeat mood as he moved among the workers during this first day of the program, exchanging pleasantries and encouraging them. He said there may be a bit of a misconception about the program, which is understandable on the surface, since prisoners are helping maintain a children’s playground.

“They are not Cool Hand Luke out there,” Duch said, referring to the character played by Paul Newman in the 1967 prison-drama film of the same name. “There is a good rapport between the [sheriff’s] crew and the inmates. It is a positive environment.”

The arrangement came about after the Chico City Council voted last month on a suggestion by Councilman Randall Stone to work with the Sheriff’s Office to help keep Caper Acres open in the wake of the city laying off of a number of park workers earlier this year. Local maintenance company ServPro stepped in initially and offered its services, which ended recently.

This is a way for those serving their sentences out of custody to gain experience and find a job, Duch said. The ACS crews also work with the Paradise-based Fire Safe Council to help reduce fire fuel, such as brush, in the county.

“This is good for the inmates,” Duch said. “We lose guys from the brush crews who get jobs with private companies. When Sierra Landscape [& Maintenance] needs a laborer, they call me. Did you ever think a cop would vouch for a convicted felon? The answer is ‘yes,’ because they don’t go back to jail if they have a job.”

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The ACS “inmates” are those convicted in Butte County Superior Court of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes (such drug possession), and because of the passage two years ago of Assembly Bill 109, serve their time in the local jail rather than a state prison. The ACS folks have been released from the jail to help make room for those more recently convicted and sentenced.

“They are all wearing ankle monitors and nobody is coming here from jail,” Duch said. “They get 30 percent off of their sentencing [time]. Plus they like the feeling of giving back, of doing something that is important, and they are proud of it.”

During a lunch break, Ashley Phillips of Oroville sat on a bench inside Caper Acres, eating sandwiches with two other ACS workers. All three had been convicted of drug-related offenses, and wore ankle monitors.

“I think it’s nice that we are doing something for the park,” Phillips said. “We celebrated my daughter’s first birthday here at Caper Acres.

“We’ve got so much done,” she said. “It’s a super cool day to be out doing this, and a good opportunity to work off our time. And it’s a chance to socialize with other people and not be cooped up all day. Plus, it gives people a chance to get jobs.”

Dan Efseaff, the city’s parks and natural-resources manager, said he too was impressed with the crew working the playground, and that the program will continue indefinitely.

“What I’ve been telling folks is that even if these were good times and we had full staffing, I would still look at this program and find usage for it,” he said. “We have a backlog of several decades of work in the park, and if this works out, we’ll continue to use it.”

The word “inmates,” he added, is a bit misleading and may give the wrong impression to concerned parents and park users.

“We need a new word,” he said. “How about ‘outmates’?”