Karen Simon, Director of Inmate Programs for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's department.
Karen Simon, Director of Inmate Programs for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's department. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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Programs at the Mecklenburg County jail have allowed prisoners to re-enter society with the skills to succeed and have reduced recidivism rates.

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By Rachel Herzog

The tall, grizzled man with a crooked smile had five or six months until his court date. Until then, John would spend his days building wooden chairs amid the clatter and hum of the woodshop. In a few weeks, he would earn a woodworking certification, something that would help him upon his release from jail.

‘John’ measures and cuts wood for chairs at the Mecklenburg Jail-North woodworking shop. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“When I get out, I can take what I’ve applied here and go straight and get me a job,” John said. (His name has been changed due to policy at the Mecklenburg County Jail.) “It’s a real good program.”

John was convicted of stealing a gun, a felony. In the woodshop, construction instructor Jim Dinnie calls him fondly by his last name, preceded by “Mister.”

This is John’s second time through the woodworking program. In his first round, he focused on pipefitting, and in between his woodworking sequences he completed the jail’s culinary course.

On the surface, carpentry and cooking classes may be the stuff of “Orange is the New Black” and other entertainment media. But the Mecklenburg County Jail’s inmate programs, and the issues surrounding them, are by no means fiction.

In 2014, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study showing that more than half of 400,000 state prisoners it tracked were re-arrested within the first year of their release and that two-thirds were re-arrested within three years.

The goal of the Mecklenburg County Jail’s programs is to combat the outside forces that send released inmates back into jail, and bring hope to inmates as they return to their community.

The jail has seen lower recidivism numbers, and has been able to close one of its branches due to a declining population.

‘See what they’re making’

Jim Dinnie owns a carpentry business in Marshville.

Carpentry instructor Jim Dinnie said he takes pleasure teaching inmates how to do something constructive. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“A lot of these guys have never picked up a drill or anything,” Dinnie, who no longer works at the jail, said during a trip to the Mecklenburg Jail-North.

“They never knew how to use any of these tools, and now see what they’re making.”

Dinnie spends his downtime making wooden birdhouses, which are on display in the shop alongside a cut-out wooden puzzle John made and painted.

“He cut all these out and painted them, and he didn’t know he could do it,” said Karen Simon, director of inmate programs.

Dinnie said the inmates who complete the program are often inspired to continue building after they get out, even if it’s not their main occupation.

“A lot of them say, once they get out, ‘How much money do I need to pick up this tool and this tool? Because I can build these chairs at home,’” he said. “They sure can.”

Ready for the outside world

From the woodshop to the kitchen, the programs instill a sense of confidence and personal responsibility in inmates, Simon said.

She banters with inmates in the hallways between workshops.

“What class are you going to? Culinary? Whooo!”

Cooking instructor Bob Raspanti shows off the culinary skills area of the Mecklenburg County Jail-North. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In the kitchen, the clang of dishes and whirr of appliances are what one would expect. And nobody’s wearing an orange jumpsuit. The cooking instructor, Bob Raspanti, wears his jail staff ID badge pinned to a white chef’s shirt.

“We make sure they wear the clothing, so that they don’t see themselves as an inmate. [Bob] tells them, ‘You’re a food-service professional,’” Simon said.

“It’s all about being in the role for them, and it makes them forget where they are, for the moment, and focus on a new role,” Raspanti said. “And they work very well together. It’s amazing to see, because the jail typically makes them more independent, like, ‘Hey, don’t talk to him.’

“But then when they come out here, it’s a different culture and they have to work together to be successful, and they adapt very well.”

Simon said this paradigm shift follows inmates outside of the jail.

“[It helps them to] not see themselves as a criminal, but as a food-service professional, so they leave here as a food-services professional, not a criminal,” she said.

At the end of the culinary course, inmates earn a ServSafe certification, which qualifies them to work in restaurants upon their release.

A source of income is vital for released inmates, Simon said, referencing a 2004 study by the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission that found that the most serious offenses of 77 percent of adult recidivists were misdemeanors, which include petty theft.

It’s the lack of just a small amount of money, usually $25 or less, that often causes an inmate to reoffend and wind up back behind bars, Simon said. An example of this type of crime is the food stamp black market among the homeless in Raleigh, she said, where people exchange food stamps for cash.

“There’s no cash, and the bus passes are too expensive, so they have to,” she said.

A holistic approach

Simon said the job-training classes are just part of how the jail tries to treat inmates as complete people, not just prisoners.

Chairs and other outdoor furniture built by inmates at the Mecklenburg Jail-North workshop as part of job skills training. Dinnie said released inmates sometimes go to visit park benches they constructed while incarcerated. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Everyone is expected to treat everyone professionally, courteously,” she said.

All the funds from the commissary, the store within the jail that sells food and supplies to prisoners, and the telephone go toward the programs.

“Any income generated off inmates is used exclusively for inmate benefit,” Simon said. “The only thing the county pays for is staff salary.”

Pods of 200 to 300 inmates surround the jail’s central building, with each inmate having an individual cell.

“It seems like a luxury, but the sheriff will not accept anything different,” Simon said, referring to former sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey, who retired in December 2014. “He goes to bed at night, we all go to bed at night, knowing each inmate is locked in an individual cell where they cannot be harmed by anyone.”

Bailey is a former ethics teacher and a son, grandson and nephew of Methodist preachers, but he said that providing services for inmates is simple logic.

“Do we want to let them come in here and watch TV or play basketball for however long they’re going to be here, and then send them back out into the streets to do the same things they did before?” he said. “Because if they haven’t done anything to take responsibility for what they did, they will just come and stay awhile. And from some neighborhoods, this isn’t a stigma to them.”

A costly loss

In addition to job training, the Mecklenburg County Jail used to offer a work-release program. The one-year recidivism rate for inmates released in 2012 who completed the program was 32 percent.

But the program was shut down due to a legislative change and financial difficulty.

In 2011, North Carolina passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which allowed only inmates convicted of misdemeanors to participate in work-release programs.

Karen Simon, director of inmate programs for the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s department. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“The way the legislature changed it, it significantly reduced the population, which of course does not make sense when you’ve got a viable program,” she said. “When they had the full-size population, averaging around 100 a day, I know the recidivism rate generally stayed at 20 percent.”

But in 2014, with a smaller inmate population, the program had a recidivism rate of about 38 percent, she said.

Work release, Simon said, is effective for someone who was employed at the time of their arrest.

“You want them to be contained, but you still want them not to lose their job,” she said. “So if you force them into another situation, and you make them lose their job, then you’ve only increased their criminogenic risk factors instead of reducing them, so it’s the reverse of what is in the best interests.”

But in June, the county decided the work release program wasn’t in its best interest financially.

“It became a drain for the county and was not in a position to be self-sufficient,” Mecklenburg County Chief Deputy Felicia McAdoo said. “The county, along with [the current sheriff, Iwrin Carmichael] decided that that was not a business we needed to continue.”

The inmates themselves covered most of the cost of the program with their room and board, McAdoo said. Without enough inmates, the program couldn’t support itself.

‘It’ll be different this time’

Training prisoners for jobs is a proactive measure, but the community has to be willing to accept the inmates as they reintegrate and search for a job with an arrest on their record, Simon said.

“They’re so hyped on the fact that life is gonna change,” she said of newly released inmates she has worked with. “And then, nobody will open up a door for them.”

Dinnie said he would hire a few of the inmates he’s trained for his carpentry business if he could, but he’s not allowed to have any affiliation with them after they’re released. Other local businesses though have hired inmates and had positive results

“Steve Price over at Price’s Chicken Coop says they’re some of the best employees he’s ever had,” Bailey said, referring to the Charlotte restaurant and catering service.

For inmates who can’t find jobs, it only gets harder after they find themselves within the jail’s walls for a second time, Simon says.

“We have to pump them up again to believe it’ll be different this time,” she said.

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