Reality Check: State opts to pay contractors rather than inmates to pick up litter

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Buchanan said the inmates did an all-star job picking up litter along Highway 226 in McDowell County (Courtesy: WLOS)

In just the mountains alone last year, the DOT spent about $2 million to pick up litter. Some of that work included labor from inmates. But as a result of a state budget decision, inmates will no longer pick up litter along roadsides.

Paul Buchanan contacted News 13 wondering why inmates were no longer cleaning up the highway next to his McDowell County home.

Buchanan is a retired truck driver and lives near Highway 226. He says the litter along the road is a big problem.

"It's just nastiness. That's just all you can say. Highways are just nastiness. They need to be cleaned up," he said.

Buchanan has a message about the bottles littering the roadside: He wants them picked up.

"It's scandalous. Yeah, I guess that's what you'd say. They're just scandalous. It's terrible. It's getting so bad now it's blowing it up in the woods," he said.

Buchanan said it wasn't always like this. He said inmates used to pick up the litter and claimed they did an all-star job.

"Perfect. Oh, 100 percent. Yeah, fine job. They didn't leave nothing," he said.

About six months ago, Buchanan said the inmates stopped coming.

"No, no, no, no, ain't been nothing picked up, and you can look down there and see," he said.

A 2016 DOT report noted inmates picking up less and less litter. However, they still scooped up more than a million pounds statewide. Buchanan worries about who will pick up the slack.

"I know them boys are going to get out up there and make that dollar a day, and look to me like it would be a whole lot cheaper," Buchanan said.

The DOT paid the Department of Public Safety about $9 million for inmates to do the work.

"People may as well attach a dollar bill any time they throw trash out the window. It's expensive," DOT Spokesperson David Uchiyama told News 13.

The 2017 budget ended the DOT payments, opening up the work for contractors to bid on.

"We believe that is going to be a much more efficient way of keeping our roads clear all across the state," Uchiyama said.

"Looks to me like it would a whole lot cheaper to let the inmates do it than a contractor," Buchanan said.

They're both right according to a 2012 study, which found contractors cost 13 percent more per mile than inmates, but the study found contractors were seven times more productive.

"Our contractors provide a much more reliable service than inmates, and one of the other benefits is that they all have the equipment to do it," Uchiyama said.

The study reported private contractors spread employees out, giving each three miles to clean on their own, while inmates get sandwiched together for security reasons. The DOT said it has a combo deal now, putting mowing and litter contracts together.

There is another way to fix the problem: People could stop littering.

"I'd love for them to stop. I wouldn't have to go out there with a baggy every two or three days, but they ain't going to," Buchanan said.

There were more than 1,200 people convicted in 2016 of littering.

Uchiyama said the work from new litter contracts should begin in March.

The DOT also encourages people to get involved with Adopt-A-Highway.