If you've wondered what is behind the massive white curtain that is draped around the state Capitol dome, here's an answer you probably didn't expect:

Prisoners.

And, no, we're not talking about any "inmates-running-the-asylum" political theories that may exist. These are real-live prisoners who split their time behind bars at the Utah State Prison and behind a protective sheet of plastic at the Utah State Capitol.

The dirty jobs of removing asbestos, demolishing walls and moving boxes and furniture have to be done prior to extensive $200 million renovation work at the Capitol, and these prisoners are the chain gang for the assignment.

They are Level 5 prisoners who are nearing parole opportunities and earning incentives by good behavior and work for a program called Utah Corrections Industries. A division of the state's corrections department, the non-funded construction-type business gives qualified prisoners an opportunity to be productive in real-world working situations. They have participated in projects ranging from the Capitol renovation to the 2002 Olympic Athletes Village, said UCI production manager Bryan Wilmot.

About 600 prisoners are involved in the work program, though most of them stay within the prison walls. Thirty inmates make the daily trek to the Capitol accompanied by three corrections officers.

Wilmot believes the work program helps reduce recidivism rates.

"It's a pretty rewarding place to work," Wilmot said. "We're trying to integrate them back into society. You see guys learn some skills so they can get out, and they can make it. On the flip side, we save taxpayers some money."

UCI, operating under the Preservation Board during this project, treats the prisoners like real employees. They have to sign contracts, and they can be fired for doing something as seemingly minor as making an unauthorized phone call.

And they're putting in a yeoman's effort at the Capitol. Since spring, Wilmot said, the inmates have combined to put in 15,000 man hours doing demolition work, asbestos abatement and relocating offices. The savings are "substantial," Wilmot said, adding that his crews can lower the overall price from a third to 50 percent. (They can work only on government projects; nothing in the private sector.)

The biggest cost reduction comes from wage savings. Inmates don't earn a wage per se but are compensated with things such as extra at-home visits and stipends, varying in value from $1 to $1.65 an hour. They also receive intense training, certification, on-the-job experience, contacts and referrals that possibly ready them to begin working as soon as they finish their prison sentences.

New skills

Ernest Cordova, a 24-year-old from Vernal who's in the third year of a four-year term, is taking full advantage of the program. He completed a 40-hour training course to learn the ins and outs of asbestos removal, forklift operation, job safety and other work-related skills. Others become proficient in roofing.

Cordova, who earned his high school diploma and began college while at the Gunnison prison facility, plans on using his new skills in his family's construction business after he's done serving his time. He wants to "be prepared when I hit the streets." His family was really encouraged about this, he said.

In the meantime, he's enjoying the freedom of "being able to wander around and get something done. . . . I feel like I accomplish something." He also laughed when he admitted he had to join the program to get his first tour of the Capitol.

Cordova and his fellow inmates had quite the task when it came to ridding the outside of the rotunda of asbestos. The exterior was coated with a stucco-like coating containing the dangerous substance, used in the past to waterproof and insulate.

The prisoners spent the past several months blasting a layer about 1/16th of an inch thick off the dome. To do that, they had to erect 13 levels of scaffolding around the building (Cordova jokes he'll never buy a Stairmaster) and secure work areas with airtight plastic and Visquine covering and duct tape. The containment is equipped with negative air pumps for filtering.

When entering asbestos abatement zones, prisoners wear head-to-toe airproof Tyvex sweatsuits (or "moonsuits" as some call them) and respirators. It makes for toasty working conditions, with temperatures toward the top of the work area reaching 112 degrees, and inside the suits rising to 120. They are trained about heat stroke and the importance of keeping hydrated.

"It gets real hot," Cordova said. "Sometimes you take off the suit and you're just drenched with sweat. At times it can be excruciating."

Getting rid of the asbestos involves several steps: First, a soy-based paint-thinner gel is sprayed on. Then workers scrape it off, grind the plaster surface, spray a lock-down substance to contain the asbestos fibers, moisten the waste products and double-bag them so they can safely be stored and hauled away to a special dump facility.

The area then has to be air-tested and granted clearance before crews can do whatever is planned next. Similar processes take place when they remove asbestos from insulated pipe or from tiles underneath carpets inside in places such as the Attorney General's office.

Their goal was to have asbestos and demolition done before the Jacobsen-Hunt contractors begin work next week, but that isn't going to happen now because of the amount of asbestos they've located. Workers joke that they're afraid to pull up carpet now for fear they'll find more asbestos-contaminated tile.

"Our original scope of work has easily doubled," Wilmot said.

Making an impression

As far as dealing with other people, Wilmot said some "hear 'inmate' and they're nervous" at first, but they usually leave impressed by the prisoners' manners and work ethic. One security guard complimented them for being courteous.

"We're actually very respectful when it comes to civilians," Cordova said. "Otherwise, we might lose every incentive we have. It's just not worth it to be disrespectful."

Cordova said he hasn't met Gov. Olene Walker. She has yet to climb up the scaffolding, he and Wilmot joked. But they did exchange distant greetings with Utah's top exec.

"I saw her when she was leaving (the Capitol,)" Cordova said. "She waved, so we thought we'd be nice and wave back."


E-mail: jody@desnews.com