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Virus halts inmate roadway cleanup in Smyth and Wythe counties, Smyth group steps up to help

Virus halts inmate roadway cleanup in Smyth and Wythe counties, Smyth group steps up to help

Litter pickup volunteers

A group of volunteers with the Smyth County-based Pro-Human group donate their time helping with litter pickup along Smyth County highways. 

With inmate work release programs at the regional jails in both Dublin and Abingdon placed on hold due to the coronavirus, litter alongside the roadways in Smyth and Wythe counties is piling up.

Typically, the sheriff’s offices in each county supervise a crew of trusties inmates who are sent out to help clear the roadsides. In Smyth County, those inmates are typically out each day of the week and in Wythe County, they work 10-hour shifts Monday through Thursday.

Andy Vanhoy, who oversees the litter pickup program for the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office, said inmates typically average between 12,000 and 15,000 bags of trash picked up throughout the county per year.

But the regional jail systems put the brakes on the program  in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to hit the area.

“These roads are unreal now,” Vanhoy said. “They took my crew on March 19. That was the last day they worked from the regional jail.”

Wythe County roadsides are also filling with trash, said Wythe County Sheriff’s Maj. Anthony Cline.

“It’s a very important program that keeps the county’s roads looking good,” he said.

Cline, who coordinates inmate crews for litter pickup in Wythe County, said he’s surprisingly only gotten a few complaints from residents about the garbage accumulating in the ditches. But, he noted, the grass along the roadways has also been higher than usual this year.

“The grass has been growing all summer, so the trash has been hidden,” he said.

The few complaints he has gotten have been addressed by state crews, but those crews are stretched pretty thin as they have to work multiple counties, he said.

Since the program shut down, Vanhoy, whose position is funded by the Virginia Department of Transportation, tried his best to clean up what he could along the Smyth County roads on his own.

“He was trying to get it as best he could, hitting the high spots where it was the worst,” Sheriff Chip Shuler said.

Then a local group called Pro-Human reached out to the sheriff’s office offering their help.

“They kind of thought things were getting out of hand and I agree,” Shuler said

So, Vanhoy equipped them with reflective vests, garbage pickers and trash bags, and the group of six volunteers began their cleanup efforts on Oct. 2.

“They’ve been a lifesaver,” Vanhoy said. “I try to do what I can, but it’s hard to do with one person. It really helps out a lot because it’s amazing the trash that’s on these roads. The sheriff really appreciates what they’re doing and I do, too.”

Vanhoy and the crew of volunteers have been focusing on main roads like Lee Highway, which see the most traffic. On Saturday, weather permitting, they’ll tackle the portion of the highway that runs along Preston Hill and will hopefully move on to Highway 107 in the near future.

Vanhoy noted that the efforts can sometimes be frustrating and difficult to keep up with.

“It’s hard because when you pick up one road, you can drive back through it the next week and people have already started trashing it again.”

Pro-Human founding member Alexis George said she reached out to Shuler after she noticed the trash collecting by the roadways.

“Chip Shuler told us that he only had one officer that could get out and do it…. So we were like, what if we help you do it, if we take that burden off your shoulders?”

The group, which focuses on giving back to the community, is in the process of seeking non-profit status. In addition to their volunteer work with the sheriff’s office, they also help out at the Atkins First Church of God’s food bank, where the virus has also caused a shortage of volunteers.

George said the bank previously had students from the Blue Ridge Job Corps Center who volunteered their time to help. But, because the center no longer has students on campus due to the pandemic, the food bank is out those volunteers.

Both Vanhoy and Shuler hope the groups volunteerism will spark interest among others in the community to do the same.

 “I’m just glad we have people that care enough about the county to pitch in,” Shuler said. “And the more the merrier.”

“I hope maybe if people see them volunteering, we might get more volunteers,” Vanhoy said.

Shuler, who sits on the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority’s board of directors, said there’s been no indication given on when the trusty programs will resume. Brian Vaught, a Wythe County deputy, who also serves as a Wythe supervisor and sits on the New River Valley Regional Jail Authority’s board, said he doesn’t know when the program will resume at the Dublin facility either.

“I would say that every representative on the board would love to see the program come back as soon as possible, but we certainly understand the caution,” Vaught said.

In addition to the litter pickup that most people see taking place along the roads, trusties also help out with things like cleaning the sheriff’s offices and maintain county grounds. At one point in 2015, some were even sent to help out the Smyth County Animal Shelter when the facility took in more than 100 cats that had been seized in an animal neglect case.

“When you think about inmate labor, it saves tax dollars,” Cline said. “So when you stop letting the inmates out of the jail, it doesn’t’ take long to feel the effects.”

And those work releases don’t just benefit the community, he said.

“If you’re given time, you’d rather be kept busy so the time passes. If you have a job to do every day, you get out of jail, you get fresh air and it helps pass the time, so they do enjoy having these jobs as trusties.”

While all said they’ll be happy to see the program come back—and soon—they understand the need to keep the virus from entering jails.

“I can understand it because I know they don’t want these guys bringing COVID back, especially in those closed quarters,” Vanhoy said.

Vaught noted that inmates are even quarantined for a period after they’ve been transported to court to prevent the spread.

“They’re trying not to get it in the general population crowd,” he said. “Jails are a unique spot because it don’t take long to spread like crazy. They know once it starts spreading it’s not going to stop.”

In the interim, Shuler and Vanhoy say they are grateful for Pro-Human’s volunteer work and hope more community members will get involved.

As for Wythe County, Cline said WCSO wouldn’t say no to anyone who wanted to volunteer either, but he also had a message for those who might be tempted to toss an empty soda bottle or fast food package out their car window.

“If people wouldn’t litter, we wouldn’t have this problem to start with,” he said.

Anyone interested in volunteering for community clean up in Smyth County should contact Vanhoy at 276-783-7204. In Wythe County, Cline can be reached at 276-228-6001.

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