Camp Pugsley’s Hard-Working Environmentalists: Grand Traverse Conservation District gets-and gives-a boost to prisoners nearing parole.

TRAVERSE?CITY – Personal safety is wholly a matter of perspective. If you doubt that, check your heart rate the next time you see an orange and blue jumpsuit-clad work crew out in public. An initial jolt, then logic takes over. Prisoners, yes; dangerous, no. Bet you've never considered the personal safety of those wearing the jumpsuits, however. What in the world could they be afraid of?

"Bears," deadpans Land Management Specialist Ben Purdy. "Most of the men are from cities and are really scared of bears. The woods, the trails up here, are totally foreign to them, and they think bears are everywhere."

Purdy works for the Grand Traverse Conservation District (GTCD), just one of the area organizations that has long benefited from manual labor supplied by prison work crews. The six-man crews reside at Camp Pugsley, a 180-acre minimum-security prison just outside Kingsley. In the final months of sentences resulting from convictions for drunk driving, drug possession or other non-violent crime, they can be credited with beautification, habitat restoration, and recreational upgrades throughout the area.

Have you ever sat around a campfire on Power Island? Work crews built the fire pit and the dock where you tied up your boat. Have you jogged the winding trail at the Civic Center? Work crews keep it clear of debris and installed the landscaping. Have you visited a local cemetery recently to pay your respects? Work crews are most likely responsible for the upkeep. And, if you plan to do any Christmas shopping at Kohls, Michael's or Bed, Bath & Beyond this year, consider exploring the serene scene behind the stores.

The 17 acres Garfield Township required the box store's developers to set aside for open space is now the Kids Creek nature preserve, which boasts a circular foot path, scenic bridge, sitting area, stream and pond. Work is still continuing, and the project has a ways to go before completion, but five feet down the trail, you'd never guess that people were grabbing for bargains right up the hill. Nor that prison work crews were the environmental muscle behind the project. The worth of their labor is another thing wholly a matter of perspective: valuable, yes; visible, no.

"It's really easy to weave in a stewardship message with the guys," says Purdy. Once they get over their fear of bears, that is. "And they work really, really hard. You can't get people to work like that anymore."

The price can't be beat, either: $15 a day per man plus mileage. The work has proven to help the community and to be both therapeutic and educational for the men. Recidivism rates drop for convicted offenders who spend time on work crews.

As far as education goes, what, exactly, do they learn? "Life. Everything. How to work together. How to not stand on a street corner," says Crew Chief Al Strange, a corrections officer for the past 18 years. "Once they understand the job, stand back, because the dirt will be flyin.'"

With just a one-year hiatus due to state budget cuts back in 2007, the GTCD has made use of prison work crews since 1993; back then the cost was only $2 per man per day. Even at today's rate, the value of the accomplishments to the Traverse City area and beyond are impossible to calculate, says Purdy. How do you place a dollar figure on a stream that was once filled with sediment and a rusty culvert, but now allows salmon to spawn? What is a lunch hour on a bench in the woods and away from the office worth?

As for the personal safety issues, not one incident between a work crew prisoner and a member of the public has ever been reported. And, bear sightings by prison crew members also, to date, stand at zero. BN