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August 18, 2010: Vol. 2, No. 20
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Marty’s prison labor! Beep’s concert series gets inmates to cut costs


Call it Marty’s “con”-cert series.

Two busloads of prisoners from Rikers Island — wearing matching red- and white-striped jumpsuits — have been setting up and breaking for Borough President Markowitz’s controversial concerts in Coney Island’s Asser Levy Park.

The inmates aren’t a threat to public safety, according to the city — but they are a heck of a bargain for Markowitz.

“It saves me money, that’s the motivation for having them!” said Debra Garcia, who is in charge of the Beep’s concerts. “It saves about a few thousand dollars a week.”

Under the “Cool Hand Luke”-style program, the inmates set up 2,000 seats at the front of the park’s bandshell near Surf Avenue and West Fifth Street hours before the show. The next morning, the inmates are returned to the spot to collect the chairs.

The work detail for prisoners — which also takes place at Wingate Field in Crown Heights as part of Markowitz’s Martin Luther King Jr. concert series — appears to be the only one of its kind in Brooklyn.

A Department of Correction official said that there are only two other chain gang-style work crews in the city — both near Rikers Island.

Markowitz had taken advantage of the discounted labor-in-chains through the state prison system for at least the last 15 years, beginning when he was a state senator. But that font of labor ran dry this year as part of state budget cutbacks.

“The total cost is typically more than $60,000 a crew,” explained Erik Kriss, a spokesman with the state’s Department of Correctional Services, explaining why the program was cut.

After the state cutback, Markowitz went to the city’s jail system for help setting up his weekly music extravaganzas, which this year have featured George Thorogood and the Beach Boys.

It is unclear why Markowitz’s concerts are the only events in Brooklyn that get the benefit of prison labor.

But there is no doubt that the concerts have highlighted the Beep’s political savvy and influence — it was only three months ago that Mayor Bloomberg scrambled to pass a temporary measure that allowed the shows to proceed, despite an apparent violation of city law barring amplified noise within 500 feet of a house of worship.

Some critics of the concerts saw the work crews as yet another example of Markowitz’s lack of respect for the community surrounding Asser Levy Park.

“It’s insane!” said Mendy Sontag, the president of the Sea Breeze Jewish Center, which faces the park. “You got women walking with kids in the morning, and you don’t know what the prisoners are in for.”

A Department of Correction spokesman said that the inmates are “low-security-risk inmates carefully selected … and carefully monitored.”

But even those who weren’t spooked by the inmates said that there are certainly people who would like to get paid to do the same job.

“It’s nice the prisoners give something back to society,” said Ida Sanoff, an opponent of Markowitz’s larger plan to expand the bandshell into a $64-million amphitheater. “But on the other hand, there are a lot of people out of work that would like to get paid — even if just for a couple of days.”

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