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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BP's Ex-Convict Brigade

I believe that everyone should be given a second chance.  I also believe in programs to help ex-convicts get back into the working world.  It is fundamentally necessary to have such programs if we are ever to move criminals back into working society.

But it can also lead to serious concerns.

In tiny Grand Isle, where the BP workers now outnumber the full-time residents, Rebecca Dana talks to locals fuming that ex-cons are among the cleanup workers and hears about unwanted advances, rising crime, and shout-filled town halls.

Everyone used to leave their doors open in Grand Isle, an isolated beach community on the southwestern edge of Louisiana. But now neighbors are building fences, business owners are contemplating security systems, and even the teenage “Cajun Sno-Cone” vendor locks her pickup window at night.

People here are flat-out terrified of BP.

Some of these workers are ex-cons—a fact that leaves locals fuming and BP shrugging its shoulders helplessly; after all, someone needs to do the dirty work. Many are poor and black, some drink, some get into fights, all are desperate for these jobs. They have poured into a once sleepy, overwhelmingly white coastal town whose residents are already worn to the breaking point by the oil spill, dealing with lives lost, family businesses destroyed, and the daunting prospect of rebuilding.

BP acknowledges there have been incidents and that workers have been dismissed for bad behavior or past convictions. But, in the most diplomatic language possible, a company public-affairs officer suggests that perceptions of skyrocketing violence are more imagined than real—like the headaches everyone’s been complaining about lately, even though all the state and federal air tests keep coming out clean.

BP has tried a variety of strategies for making peace in the community. The company held town halls, which turned into shout-fests, so it switched to smaller crawfish boils at townspeople’s homes. This Thursday is movie night; the company is bringing in an old-fashioned popcorn machine and screening Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It is spending more than $10,000 to build a volleyball court. It has set up a program to pay young people to do community-service projects and already vowed that all 151 local children will go on all the rides for free at a three-day carnival coming to town in July.

“We’ve had a turning point, just in the last 24 hours,” French said, “when for the first time ever, the compliments have outweighed the complaints.”

Although, he allowed, that may have something to do with the second round of $5,000 checks that just landed in everyone’s mailboxes.

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