Halfway through the four-hour community service shift on a raw, drizzling morning, the dozen probationers had done only 45 minutes of work, indifferently collecting trash with long pickup tools along a highway exit ramp.
Suddenly, their state supervisor introduced a sense of urgency. It was time for a midmorning break.
“Just pick up things that are white so it will look clean,’’ said Anthony Giampa, hurrying his reluctant charges along.
Community service vans, ubiquitous along Massachusetts highways, are supposed to beautify the Commonwealth while teaching criminals work skills and the satisfaction of a job well done. At least that’s what the brochure claims.
“You see how their attitudes change as they get to do work, because work is a wonderful common denominator,’’ Stephen V. Price, the program’s founder and executive director of the Probation Department’s Office of Community Corrections, said in an interview. His office dispatches more than 300 community service vans across Massachusetts each week.
Price pointed to a 2-inch stack of thank-you letters from cities and charities that have benefited from the free labor.
But according to several community service staff members and the Globe’s close observation of crews led by two supervisors, the $4.2 million program frequently offers little more than lightly supervised make-work — and some days, not even much of that.
Giampa spent a decade on the job before he retired in May, eventually earning $55,000 a year. He had been fired in 2005 for a litany of misdeeds including not requiring his crews of probationers to work a full four hours and allowing them to smoke and use their cellphones. An arbitrator gave him his job back after finding that his dismissal was for “unjust cause’’ and that his lassitude “reflected a manner of operations that had been tolerated for the several years since his prior discipline, perhaps as he claims, evidence of common practice among his fellow drivers.’’
Most drivers work hard and insist on the same from their charges, Price said.
Among them, according to Price, was the driver supervising a work crew in a Newburyport cemetery in 2005 when one of the probationers broke into the tomb of a Civil War veteran and posed for pictures with the skull. It came to light only when police got a tip days later.
Price called the incident “comical’’ and “very minor,’’ although it earned the man jail time. He said it’s not possible to keep every worker in sight at every moment.
Two other drivers told the Globe that they shared Giampa’s languorous style. They blamed their bosses for not finding enough meaningful work for the probationers, who do community service on judges’ orders or to work off court fees.
Giampa allowed a Globe reporter to come along one day earlier this year. He later agreed to be identified after deciding to retire.
At 8 a.m., the van outside East Boston District Court was packed with nine men and three women. Giampa had to wait for 20 minutes for another van to pick up a handful of stragglers. “If it’s not raining too hard, you’ll have to do some work,’’ he told the group.
The mood was something like an after-school detention session that the class cut-ups didn’t particularly mind. Some dozed. A middle-aged man bragged about how cushy his prison stint was. One woman explained how she got a doctor’s note to cover her absences from work while she did her community service.
Giampa then took four volunteers into the courthouse to move a desk. Everyone else waited another 20 minutes.
Finally, the van hit the road. Giampa made a few slow drives between the court, a state garage, and the clean-up sites. He took attendance. Handed out equipment. Announced the midmorning break.
That left only an hour and a quarter for trash collection at three spots.
Some worked diligently, others less so. A young woman just wandered around. One guy made cracks about condom wrappers and pocketed a prescription pill bottle he found on the ground.
A tall, chatty man gestured toward Giampa and explained how he used his pickup spear: “I just stab the ground every time he looks over.’’
On the way back to the courthouse, Giampa played Lady Gaga while the group debated possible uses for the found prescription pills.
Before letting everyone out 15 minutes early, Giampa bade farewell: “We’re a little early so behave yourselves. Don’t kill anyone ’til at least five after 12. Have a good day.’’
Giampa worked part time before his retirement. But for most of his years on the job, he would have supervised one or two afternoon crews a week. The other days, he said, he’d spend the afternoon doing a couple of pages of paperwork and waiting for the phone to ring.
“You write 14 names in a book,’’ he said. “How long do you think that takes?’’