Last Friday afternoon at four o’clock, a woman on a red moped tossed a clear plastic water bottle off the eastbound side of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

On Tuesday morning, Steve Duarte picked it up for her.

The simple act represented a huge change in the life of a man who was sitting in Barnstable county jail 12 months ago, serving the second year of a five-year sentence for a drug offense.

Lieut. Donald Rose keeps an eye on traffic. — MC Wallo


Now 30, Mr. Duarte has spent 11 of the past 13 years in Massachusetts jails and prisons over drugs, including at Walpole, Norfolk, South Bay in Boston and Barnstable.

Now he is at the Edgartown house of correction. “At Barnstable, I heard about how they do things here. I was sick of how I was living so I applied for a transfer. I’m grateful I got it,” said the amiable Fall River native Tuesday morning as he walked along the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

Mr. Duarte and a fellow inmate were picking up roadside trash under the watchful eye of Lieut. Donald Rose, who sat nearby in a Dukes County Sheriff’s truck.

This roadside work is a plum job that inmates must earn. Both men like it and are expert at spotting and skewering the trash.

“Some guys don’t want to do this but, to me, I’m out of jail, in the sun, doing something useful. I have to toe the line to keep this privilege and I have a goal,” grinned Mr. Duarte’s working buddy, who has two months left on a six-month alcohol-related conviction and did not want his name used. He hefted a five-gallon trash bag and set a quick pace, picking and plucking with his four-foot sticker.

His goal is to get 10 or 15 bags filled in a three -and-a-half-hour shift. A reporter who was on the scene to write a story pitched in to help but quickly discovered he was terrible at it. Tiny liquor bottles called nips are tough to pick up.

“We get lots of nips. People are afraid of the open container law so they drink nips and toss them,” the inmate said.

Passing drivers who recognized the crew honked and yelled hello.

MC Wallo

Bikers and pedestrians did not exchange greetings.

They saw the sheriff’s truck with a flashing blue light and passed silently.

The roadmates were unconcerned.

In an earlier interview, Sheriff Michael McCormack talked about the program and its value to the inmates and the Island.

“Our programs focus on accountability for actions. Community service is a good way to pay back, to understand that actions have consequences. Those things also build self-esteem,” he said.

Low self esteem is a key issue in any inmate population, and the Vineyard is no exception, but since violent crime here is rare, the inmates are not usually considered dangerous.

“About 75 to 80 per cent of our population are here for crimes related to alcohol or substance abuse,” Mr. McCormack said

His 25 inmates serve sentences from 10 days to two and a half years.

Steve Duarte has put his time in jail to productive use. He has earned his high school equivalency, is OSHA certified and trained in restaurant safety service. He has the option to attend college through a Cape Cod Community College partnership program started by Katy Upson, the jail education facilitator.

The opportunity for job skill training is what attracted Mr. Duarte to apply for the transfer from Barnstable.

“They help you here. They understand what it’s like in most prisons — you do your bit, get 50 bucks and a walk out the gate.

“To do what? To do what I knew how to do. Then I’m back in again,” he said, adding:

“Hey, this is my crime. I did it and I owe. I can give back doing this. We talk a lot [in support meetings] about making amends. I can make amends by doing this,” he said, grabbing a plastic water bottle.

“This guy [Sheriff McCormack] is all about rehabilitation. He wants you to get better.

“What will I be doing when I’m 35? I’m good at fixing cars. I want to have an auto repair business.”

The sheriff offers job and life skills training to inmates and also to offenders on probation who perform court-mandated community service. The sheriff has a satellite office near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport for the probation program. The office monitors community service and administers substance abuse testing, life skills and job training during a 16-week program. The sheriff supervises about 60 inmates a year, plus 29 people who are on probation and 1,330 other offenders performing court-ordered community service work. Most are Island residents, he said.

The state allows towns and nonprofit organizations to request community service help from inmates. Dukes county handled 259 such requests last year, totaling more than 6,000 hours of community service; calculated at $10 an hour this adds up to some $75,000 worth of work. “We’ve painted town halls and municipal buildings, restored buildings at the Farm Institute. We help to set up the Agricultural Fair fences and stands. We clean up the beach and the roads. We’ve even stuffed 16,000 letters for the Red Cross and folded dance programs for The Yard in Chilmark,” Mr. McCormack said.

The financial benefit to the community is substantial, he said, since the annual cost to jail an offender is $35,000 to $40,000. State statistics show that people on parole and probation are half as likely to return to jail in the first year as those who serve full sentences.

“There’s a reason for that [statistic]. People on probation and parole and probation are getting scrutinized. The first year after release is crucial to avoid returning to jail. At the county level, the rehabilitation model works better than the punishment model,” Mr. McCormack said.

“This place is small enough so you know when the same faces are coming back again and again. I’m not seeing that like I did years ago,” he added.

Back on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road, the roadmates have covered two to three miles by 11:30 a.m. They return to the truck, load nine bags and remove their orange fluorescent vests.

One of the mates, who has been quiet, has a thought. “Tell them that we’re not bad or animals. We are people who made mistakes we’re willing to pay for and to change,” he said.