NEW BEDFORD — So, how helpful are the guys in red suits around The Salvation Army?
“What they do, you can’t even measure it,” Maj. Gilbert Parkhurst said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do any of (the Christmas help) without them,” Maj. BethEllen Parkhurst said.
“They’re unbelievable. Just incredible. They do anything we ask them to do,” volunteer Sandy Medeiros said.
They’re not talking about special volunteers or guys dressed in Santa Costumes, but a group of six inmates from the Bristol County House of Correction.
These prisoners are shuttled from the Dartmouth jail to The Salvation Army building on Purchase Street every morning during the holiday season. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., they do everything from emptying the trash bags to stocking pantry shelves to carrying large boxes of clothes, food and toys. Monday afternoon, they unloaded a massive truck full of toys — the first delivery of the year to The Salvation Army, paid for with funds raised from the Neediest Families Fund.
The inmates provide manpower, often necessary to unload trucks full of heavy donation boxes — and they do it with a smile.
“They’re really the backbone of the whole operation behind the scenes,” said Costa, who has been with The Salvation Army in the city for more than 30 years. “I can’t say enough about those gentlemen. The community should know that these guys have good hearts and they’re doing it with a smile on their faces.”
The inmates are part of the Sheriff’s Office’s Inmate Work Program, which takes those behind bars out into the community doing a range of community service, from removing graffiti to refurbishing public buildings and preparing baseball fields for upcoming seasons.
They are under the direction of Lt. Bob Johnson, a city native and 23-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who has been supervising inmates’ work at The Salvation Army for almost 10 years.
“I’ve never had a single incident,” Lt. Johnson said. “We’ve unloaded thousands of pounds of food. You can’t beat the 12 hands I bring along.”
The inmate crews doing work at The Salvation Army and other places are all serving sentences of 10 months or less. Lt. Johnson said there are no sexual or violent offenders. All have been tried and convicted, none is awaiting trial, and all are in for non-violent crimes.
Acushnet resident Samuel DesRoches is one those inmates working at The Salvation Army. DesRoches, who is in for burning a motor vehicle, said that seeing the struggling people who come in for Christmas help or food donations helped him appreciate what he has.
“We get to help a lot of people, and these people are really struggling,” DesRoches said. “It definitely helped me appreciate my life a lot more and appreciate the smaller things, and to be a better person when I get out.”
“It’s a nice opportunity to see that this box of food I packed is going to help a family in need,” said inmate Paul Lindstrom, a Providence native who is in for operating under the influence. “The people here do such a great job. It just makes you want to work even harder seeing what they do here.”
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said it’s not necessarily about the work they do while they’re in jail, but the impact it has when they get out.
“It gives them the confidence that when they get out of jail, they can make the community a better place,” he said. “This gives them a chance to help others and know they’re making a difference. We’ve had inmates get jobs at places they’ve done service at.”
At the end of the holiday season, the inmates are treated to a special appreciation lunch in the break room at The Salvation Army.
“We get to sit down with them and tell them how much we appreciate what they’ve done for us,” Maj. Gilbert Parkhurst said. “Even while they’re working, I get a chance to talk to them, talk about their lives, what they’ve done and what they want to accomplish when they get out. We’ve even had some come back and help us out after they get released.”
By Jonathan Darling