About 3 years ago we started a wonderful program to mentor jail inmates through The Family Center. Well, we accidently created this program… We didn’t know what we were doing at the time, but we are so grateful we did… let me explain.
A few years ago, I gave the Chief Deputy of the Maury County Sherriff’s Department a tour of our building. We talked about our space issues, overflow of donations from this wonderful community and the implementation of our thrift store we hadn’t yet named. The Chief Deputy suggested we use inmate labor as a possibility to help with some of our lifting, cleaning and building of our store. We had never considered inmate labor. We didn’t know that was an option for our little office. In the past, inmates had to be in their green and white striped clothing to go to work. I didn’t want that. Having inmates in their “green and whites” would be a deterrent for supporters and families that come for assistance. There is a stigma to those in jail that I felt would hurt our agency if they were not in civilian clothes. The Chief Deputy explained the new Sherriff allowed inmates to be in civilian clothing and we could use them to cut the grass, clean the center and lift heavy things. Which meant free labor!
Well, I wont lie, I saw dollar signs… We are a nonprofit you know…We could stop paying the man to cut our grass along with the cleaning people we hired and the handyman we periodically used for small repairs. The money we could save would allow us to help more families not too mention save our aching backs!!! Free labor? Sign me up!
Our first trustee was Adam. The very first day I picked him up he already had a long list of things to do… We dismissed our paid help and I loaded up our “free labor” with everything we could give him. He got to work right away and it was great! He was so grateful to be out of jail and to see the sunshine that it didn’t matter what we asked him to do… he did it with a smile. As long as we gave him a package of ramen noodles for lunch every once in awhile and an opportunity to breathe fresh air he was happy doing whatever we asked of him. However, it didn’t take long for this office of social workers to quickly realize we had something else here… we had an opportunity.
With Adam, we got to hear his story. We got to learn his “charges” and other jail house lingo. We taught him kindness, patience, and understanding. He taught us how his troubled childhood led to a life of drugs and crime. We showed him a giving world and a circle of supporters who wanted to help strangers without anything in return. He showed us how hard it is to start over without a driver’s license living in a rural town. He talk to us about his fears when he got out of jail and about the pull of drugs. We talked to him about being strong, nothing good happens after 10:00, Neosprin and a bandaid fixes most things… and the love of God.
After Adam, we had William who helped us open Common Threads. Then there was Josh, Chauncey, Sidney, Ray, Chris, Drevarius, Paul, Steve, Alex, Terry, Jonathan, Memphis, Jerry, Luke, Robert, Mark… and probably 30 others.
Some have been easier to reach than others. Most will let their guard down and open up to us but a small few want to do their time and be left alone. It is not uncommon for these men to eventually show their vulnerable side; to cry over their past or to shed tears for their unknown future. If they are open to hear the word of God, we will share it… but we don’t push it.
The inmates who are eligible for work release have committed misdemeanors. They must prove themselves trustworthy in jail to be allowed in the work pod. Even then, the jail selects certain ones to come to The Family Center. We might have them for a day or for several months. Sometimes we have one, sometimes 4. Most of the time they are at the end of their sentence and will do anything we ask to be able to finish their time in a loving environment. Never have we felt leery or uncomfortable with these men. Always, they have been kind and respectful.
The men we get are appreciative of our kindness and the ability to come to work with us. They usually go above and beyond to help us. Not once have I had to return a trustee for not working hard. Never have I had to return one because they were disrespectful or lazy. In fact, it is usually the opposite. I will give them a list to do that would take anyone of us the entire day to complete yet they are done in just a few hours… and for the most part, better than expected.
They cut the grass, carry heavy things, help us with fundraisers, art projects, paint and clean. We have had them take pictures while accepting donations, they have been in our meetings and attended luncheons where we speak about poverty in Maury County. We try to include them in everything we do as if they were a volunteer and not an inmate… Like a respected person in this community; like you and me.
The goal is to treat them as human beings and not inmates, we don’t dwell on where they have been, we focus on where they are going.
We are not the only non profit in this community that uses trustees. However, due the nature of our services we provide for the community and the social workers that we employ, we can offer counseling and support while in jail and continue when they are released. When released, many come back to visit. We have met wives, girlfriends, children, parents and grandparents. We have helped them find a place to live, employment, support groups, furniture and clothing. We have paid rent, electricity, given food or gas money to help them get started… Things we do for our other clients, we can do to help them.
Sadly, some have returned to jail but most have not.
Of course we know they all have checkered pasts… we know many have criminal tendencies. We are not naïve and we are diligent in our care for them while they are not behind bars but still serving their sentence. But we choose to treat them as people and not criminals in hopes that we can plant some seeds.
And planting seeds is all we want to do. We know a few weeks or months with us will not change a lifetime of bad choices. We know cutting our grass or painting an office isn’t going to give them the work skills they need to be successful out of jail. But it is a start.
We plant seeds.
Sometimes we get to water them, sometimes someone else does the watering. Sometimes the seeds lie dormant for a while. We plant them anyway.
Do we think out accidental program works? We hope so. In general the Maury County recidivism rate is lower than in past years and we hope we have had a small part in that. But I can tell you what doesn’t work. Locking these men up for 11 months and 29 days without an opportunity to learn how to make better choices. Not giving them a chance to learn there is a better way to live, to get an education or drug/alcohol counseling. Letting them rot in jail on a misdemeanor does nothing for our community but teach these men there is nothing better out there.
We absolutely love this program we accidently created, we love being able to touch the lives of people who are incarcerated in a unique way. We love what they do for us and what we are able to do in return. We love we can make a small difference in the lives of many men who have no one to guide them in or out of jail.
And of course, we love the partnership we have with the Maury County Sherriff’s Department that allows us to do this. It is not easy to pick these men up everyday, to show them patience, mentor them and get all our other work done for our clients and this community. But it is important… Because this is Maury… And we are all in this community together!