County jails turning to life-skills programs
Kent County is in its sixth year of providing a re-entry program for inmates.
More Michigan counties are offering programs to keep inmates from returning to jail.
Similar to programs in place at state prisons, the local programs teach skills that give a better chance to jail inmates who serve much shorter sentences than those in prison, said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.
Each program is unique and depends on the demographics and the size of the jail, Koops said.
Kent County is in the sixth year of a re-entry program piloted with the National Institute of Corrections, based in Washington, D.C.
It offers classes on avoiding substance abuse, job readiness, high school equivalency completion, job readiness training, social skills and problem solving, said Rob Steele, the inmate program coordinator.
The county re-entry programs are designed to eliminate the short-term repeat offenders.
Jails have frequent flyers, said Capt. Klint Thorne, who oversees facility operations for Kent County. “It is like a revolving door. We will have the same problem with the same people again.”
“Frequent flyers” usually started in the criminal justice system at a young age and have been arrested several times, Thorne said. The program targets them and other high-risk people serving sentences to ensure there is enough time to have an impact, he said.
Finding funding for such programs is difficult, Thorne said. The department often partners with local groups.
“It is important to have support from the local community — financial support and time commitment to make this work,” Thorne said. “I think this should be a nationwide program, but I understand there is some difficulty in counties.”
The Allegan County Correctional Facility started a similar program in 2009, said Sgt. John Sexton of the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department.
It allows people to live in one dorm as study buddies, he said. They have two life-skills classes a day, five days per week. The coursework includes job skills, budgeting, addiction recovery, parenting and Bible study.
Inmates also can choose weekend workshops, worship services, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and high school equivalency classes.
The program lasts 10 weeks, Sexton said. Eighteen people graduated this year.
“Some students actually asked the judge if they can stay until the class is over,” Sexton said.
Most of the students don’t return to jail, Sexton said. “Some of them got back, but mostly for a smaller crime like violation of parole. They rarely come back for the same level crime or a more severe one.”
And the program has supporters.
“Judges, probation officers, sheriffs and a lot people from law enforcement are all invited to the graduation,” he said.
The program was so successful that the county set up a women’s program. The first students graduated in September 2016.
It offers the same classes but also offers individual counseling with a therapist.
Forgotten Man Ministries works in similar programs with 33 county jails across the state, said Sarah Farkas, the group’s lead chaplain. It offers religious classes, worship services and individual counseling.
It is possible for people to change their lives, she said.
“When I first started in the program about two-and-a-half years ago, it broke my heart to see how people are looking at the inmate,” she said. “I feel like inmates are always marginalized in a lot of ways.
“I had a loved one who was incarcerated once, so I understand the system and I see society always associated shame with it. This is a successful program; it empowers them and empowers their thinking process.”
Inmates in jail ministries are open and willing to share their stories, which is not often seen in everyday life, she said.
Life-skills programs are emerging in county jails but aren’t widely used, Koops said.
“I’d like to see it not only statewide; it should be a nationwide program,” he said.