When you have a 100-year-old building like Stillwater state prison, there’s no such thing as routine maintenance. “It’s unbelievable the stuff we do,” says Rob Eastman, who supervises the prison’s plumbers.
Plumbers are among the licensed crews who keep the prison’s water, sewer, heating, cooling, power, and electrical systems functioning. But one of the biggest things the crews do is save taxpayers money.
“Rather than just a maintenance staff, we’re a construction company,” says Robb Lunzer, a plumber and member of AFSCME Local 600. “We do preventative maintenance, plus new construction, plus remodeling.” It’s a similar story at many of the state’s correctional facilities.
The prison grounds at Stillwater are filled with projects that trades crews did in-house. In recent years, they’ve laid yards of concrete, built gatehouses, installed landscaping, patched up masonry, put in energy-efficient windows, and replaced rotting steam lines with hot-water systems. That’s on top of day-to-day upkeep.
In the case of plumbing, upkeep means 2,100 toilets, plus sinks, faucets, showers, laundry facilities, ice machines, wells, fire suppression systems, and more.
“We have 1,600 offenders. Sometimes it’s like having 1,600 4-year-olds,” Lunzer says. “The stuff you find down the toilets – sheets, pillow cases, fruit cups, milk cartons, apples. The offenders, if they want to be moved, they’ll plug their toilets or break something, so they have to be moved. So there’s a lot of unnecessary repairs.”
“If you had to hire that all out, and had a contractor come in to do that, this place would go broke,” Eastman says. Besides, he says, his crews often do better work.
“The state always takes the lowest bid,” Lunzer explains, “so we sometimes have to fix what they didn’t do right.”
$1.7 million in savings
Lunzer and the plumbing crew took on one of the prison’s biggest projects: replacing the century-old waste and vent lines that serviced more than 1,000 cells. They ripped out cast-iron and galvanized pipes and installed modern PVC lines.
“They sent it out to bid, because they thought it would be too big for us,” Lunzer says. “But the bids came in at some enormous amounts.” So the plumbing crews did the project in-house.
Local 600 members, working with inmate trainees, got the job done almost six months earlier than contractors promised. They also finished it for $1.7 million less than the lowest outside bid.
It’s that kind of effort that Lunzer thinks legislators overlook when they denigrate state workers.
“Some of these legislators want to privatize everything,” he says. “Do the legislators who are cutting us down, who say we are not worth anything, really know how much we are saving the state?”
Doing projects in-house saves money, in part, because it streamlines the process. But it’s a sore spot with Lunzer and Eastman that some of the savings are because the state pays its own plumbers less than it pays outside contractors.
Trying to close the gap
The gap used to be only about $1 an hour, Eastman says. Now, Stillwater’s plumbers get $23.63 an hour, compared with the prevailing wage of $39.99 for journeyman plumbers on the outside.
That’s despite the fact that Local 600 plumbers have the same training and pass the same state exams. And that’s despite the fact that they routinely work in more difficult conditions.
“This is a prison. It’s not an elementary school where you’re working,” says Ramie Fairchild, an engineer and Local 600 member who helps run the energy management systems that heat more than 1 million square feet of space. “You’ve definitely always got to be aware.”
A matter of trust
Local 600 crews work side by side with offenders, training them as part of the job. Offenders can spend as long as four years on a crew, developing skills that could help them land jobs on the outside once they are released.
Crews and offenders work together, often in isolated parts of the prison, where they all are vulnerable. Crews have access to all the saws, blades and other tools necessary for the construction jobs. If an offender had these tools in any other situation, it could cause a lockdown.
“Our maintenance guys have got to keep track of all that stuff while they’re doing their work,” says power plant chief Scott Reeves. “If you go out with five blades, you better have five blades when you come back.”
“There’s no officer with us,” Lunzer says. “We put weapons in inmates’ hands. We walk a fine line.”