c. StarNewsOnline.com 2012
Reprinted with permission
On a recent afternoon, 13 inmates, clad in tan jumpsuits, left their respective cell blocks and headed for a classroom toward the front of the New Hanover County jail. There, they squeezed into plastic chairs around a table, and steered their eyes toward the instructors at the front of the room.
The topic of this meeting: How to become a better father.
"Even though I got my daughter every weekend, I was never there for her," Donald Holley, a 30-year-old who has been locked up for five months on pending marijuana charges, confessed during last week's session.
He wrote his 9-year-old daughter the other day, he said, telling "her how proud I am of her and when I get out, I'm going to try to do more for her as a father, which I should of did when I was out there in the world."
As he spoke, Holley's eyes welled up, and he reached for the paper towel dispenser hanging on the wall behind him, grabbing a sheet to dab his tears.
The fatherhood class is one of a variety of programs offered to inmates at the jail here. The services, which range from denominational religious study groups to drug treatment, reflect a widespread belief in incarceration as an opportunity for rehabilitation. Jails and prisons, advocates of such programs say, are a chance to grab the attention of someone previously unreachable, transform their thinking and instill new behaviors.
Rehabilitation at the jail level gained newfound attention after last year's sweeping overhaul of North Carolina's criminal justice system.
Under the old laws, jails mostly served as housing facilities for suspects awaiting trial. But now they take in more convicts after sentencing, a change intended to curb the state's ballooning – and more costly – prison population.
The influx, advocates say, means jails share more of the responsibility in reforming inmates than they once did.
But the problem is that counties are experiencing difficulty keeping programs afloat in the face of shrinking budgets. State cuts, for example, have led to the suspension of the New Hanover County jail's high school equivalency diploma program.
Lao Rubert, director of the advocacy group Carolina Justice Policy Center, based in Durham, said jails have tried to tailor their classroom offerings to address prevalent issues in their respective community, whether that be substance abuse, domestic violence, poor parenting or other problems.
"Jail is an excellent place to get somebody's attention and get them engaged," Rubert said, adding later, "Those kinds of programs are important for people coming out of jail to make a smooth transition back in the community."
In jailhouse interviews, several inmates described a deep appreciation for the services, saying they not only break up the monotony of life behind bars but also provide guidance on achieving success on the outside. When boredom sets in, as it frequently does, inmates find themselves dwelling on what they learned and translating that new information into noticeable behavior changes.
Owen Morgan, 22, began attending 12-step meetings at the jail in an effort to turn his life around. Before being confined on charges related to a robbery, Morgan said, he made a living selling mephedrone, a synthetic drug that was legal in North Carolina until recently. He used it, too, and his hand still bears a scar from an infection he got after injecting the drug.
"When I get out of here, I want to specialize in addiction and do the opposite of what I did before and get people off drugs," he said, speaking through the glass in a jail visitation room. "I want to undo the things I did."
In a recent group meeting, Morgan put on display of his budding interest in drug counseling. When a fellow inmate and friend, Brandon Mabry, asked the instructors a question about the challenges of disassociating oneself from friends who use drugs, Morgan chimed in.
"Just do you," he told Mabry at the end of a lengthy response. "You don't want to relapse. You don't want to go through this stuff again."
On some level, providing counseling is about dollars and cents. Programs like those offered in New Hanover County have been proven to decrease the likelihood of recidivism, keeping the inmate population in check.
In many cases, defendants enter jail or prison with underlying issues that can be addressed, such as mental illness or substance addiction. Moreover, most inmates report low levels of educational achievement, hold limited job skills and had low earnings prior to their incarceration, according to a 2005 report from the Reentry Policy Council, a project of the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center.
A vast majority of people currently incarcerated will wind up back in the community. The goal of programming is to equip inmates with skills so they do not return.
"We try to motivate them, give them something to do while they're here so they have something to do other than playing cards," said Shirley Knox, program coordinator for the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office. "It makes the facility run smoother."
Mabry is scheduled for release on Aug. 23. He has been trying to kick a long-running addition to cocaine by attending drug treatment. He also goes to a Christian Bible study and has considered taking the fatherhood classes, hoping to build a stronger relationship with his 5-year-old daughter once he gets out.
"I want to spend more time with my daughter than I did before, (when) I was getting high all the time," he said, adding that he hopes to share what he learned in drug treatment with his brother, who is also an addict.
The treatment, he said, is helpful because it put him in contact with others who have overcome addiction. "It's made me realize I don't need drugs," he said. "I need to find a way to go about living so I don't end up back in here."
Programs at the New Hanover County jail run daily from 9 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.
In addition to Christian Bible study, there are also religious events for Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses. Classes are run by volunteers, who must fill out an application and submit to a background check. Classroom space is limited, making waiting lists common.
Joseph Harrell, who turned 26 on Wednesday, is waiting to join the Bible study group. He has been in jail since his June 10 arrest on breaking and entering and larceny charges. He hopes if he is sentenced to prison that he serves time in a facility with a welding program. He has shown an interest in welding since dipping his toes in the trade while working as an auto mechanic.
Since arriving at the jail, Harrell's attention has turned to managing his drug and alcohol addiction. He also attends 12-step classes. But he still carries guilt for his behavior as a free man.
"I've ruined relationships with all my good friends that would help me out in the drop of a hat," he said. "That's something I can't get back.
"One thing about jail is it makes you think," he continued. "It makes you realize all the bad things you've done and what the consequences are going to be."
Brian Freskos: 343-2327
On Twitter: @BrianFreskos