By Christina Hager, WBZ-TVBy Christina Hager

ARLINGTON (CBS) – Michael Agneta works for free, which makes him an attractive worker.

There’s just one thing – He’s been locked up behind bars for six months.

“I got three DUIs in 2009 after I turned 21. I didn’t realize I was an alcoholic. I am,” he said.

Agneta is among a group of inmates who’ve earned the privilege to work in the community through good behavior.

“We’ve grown the program significantly,” explains Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. “We’ve done about $3 million worth of work for taxpayers in Middlesex County.”

It’s one of his pet programs that’s flourished in a bad economy. Inmates have done painting and building maintenance in public housing projects, landscaping on municipal property, and snow removal across the county.

Last year, they painted the Somerville Police Department, City Hall, Public Works building, and library, totaling $180,000 worth of work in that city alone.

But labor union officials say the sheriff’s program is taking jobs away from law-abiding professionals.

“We have homeowners, people that live in the community, people that are trained to do these jobs, and they’re not getting a chance to work in that job,” says Paul Canning, with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

The head of Arlington’s Housing Authority says, because of budget cuts, his agency would not have been able to hire the job out anyway.

“We wouldn’t have had the funds to do it,” said John Griffin.

In the end, Michael Agneta says he hopes to turn his work into a paying job someday. He’ll be released in December.

“I learned a lot of skills,” he says. “It just gives me an opportunity to give back to the community.”

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