A subcommittee of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee gave preliminary approval to Sen. Emmett Hanger's bill to authorize inmate labor at Virginia's 42 rest stops.
Former Gov. Tim Kaine shuttered 19 rest stops before leaving office last year in an attempt to save money. Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered the rest stops reopened soon after taking office, vowing to find cheaper ways to operate them.
Each rest stop costs about $500,000 a year to maintain and keep open. Hanger and supporters of his bill said allowing inmates to do most of the work would reduce costs and improve maintenance at the rest stops.
Some legislators worried that having inmates and armed guards at rest stops would be perceived poorly by those visiting or passing through the state.
"I'm not sure it necessarily sends the message that we want to send in that particular situation," said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County.
Supporters argued that most of the work would be outside the rest stops — mowing grass, landscaping and making structural repairs — instead of inside the facilities and would be done during off hours. Inmates would not be in orange jumpsuits.
Hanger argued that the labor would improve the appearance of the rest stops, impressing those who stop at them.
"The flowers are going to look prettier. The grass is going to be kept. The roof in going to be repaired," said Hanger, R-Augusta. "They're in Virginia, and Virginia uses common sense."
No violent prisoners or sex offenders would be allowed to do the work.
Inmates currently work along Virginia's roadways throughout the state and on Capitol Square.
Hanger said there are thousands of inmates perfectly suited for the work, and that doing something constructive helps prepare them for re-entry into society.
"They're going to be our neighbors in just a couple of months anyway," he said.
Assistant Transportation Secretary Matt Strader said the inmate labor would cost the department about $1.50 per hour per inmate.
"It's just about cost savings and finding the most efficient way to get this work done," he said.