Gene Williams, the director of High Point Jail Ministry, which serves both Guilford County facilities, said he’s been focused on easing re-entry for inmates for 2½ years. The programs include religious, educational and life skills.
Inmates can take classes to improve themselves, satisfy orders from a judge or to earn perks in the jail. As part of a trial program in the High Point jail, they can earn points using tablets to take self-directed educational, finance, job training and other classes, then spend those points using the tablets to listen to music, watch television or make phone calls.
Inmates can also learn computer skills, math, English or work toward a GED. Men can learn parenting and fatherhood skills. Women can study women’s health issues, such as osteoarthritis and reproductive and urinary tract problems. Fitness and nutrition information is available, as are classes to help inmates learn how to manage anger.
A number of nonprofit organizations offer programs in the jails. The programs offered have been requested by inmates. They also are carefully vetted to be certain they won’t cause a problem inside the jail or teach inmates how to break the law. Maj. Chuck Williamson, commander of the department’s Court Services Bureau, says:
We kind of manage them, because we have to schedule them and assure they have the appropriate pieces. They are usually outside providers who provide services on the outside, who come in and do the same thing here.
If someone comes in with a lesson plan they present to us that is going to make the inmate a better person, then we’ll bring them on. That’s really what it’s about: helping inmates get better in all phases of life.
Williams relies on research to help choose programs beneficial to inmates. He said major risk factors for criminal activity include antisocial values, antisocial peers, personality traits, family dysfunction, low self-esteem and substance abuse. Offenders often have a sense of entitlement and self-justification, he said. They blame others for their situations and often consider themselves the victims.
Bible study programs help offenders gain new attitudes and values. Imams go to the jail regularly to lead prayers for Muslim inmates. The tablets offer courses on other religions, including Judaism.
Some traditional programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, are also available at the jails. A program called Reading Connections is intended to help improve adult literacy and Toastmasters is intended to help improve public speaking.
The jail recently started a mental health counseling program with the support of Sandhills, a publicly funded organization intended to help people of central North Carolina receive care for mental health, substance abuse and intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A large portion of the jail population uses various levels of mental health services, including many of them who aren’t displaying any negative behaviors, Williamson said. “They just need support,” he explained. “They take medications and they need counseling.”
Williamson said that at any given time up to 40 percent of people in the jail may ask for some sort of mental help. “A lot reach out for minor depression and ask for counseling,” he said.
In June 2015, Guilford’s commissioners joined hundreds of other counties throughout the country and passed a resolution to join the Stepping Up Initiative, which is aimed at helping to reduce the number of people with mental illness cycling through the jails. The initiative focuses on the behavioral health of people in jails.
The center is funding two projects within the initiative. One increases behavioral health services in the Guilford County Detention Center. The other is used for assessments and referrals to community services after inmates’ release from jail.
The center provides a psychiatric nurse practitioner for 20 hours per week and a mental health counselor for 36 hours per week. They work evenings and some weekends to provide behavioral health services. They are available for counseling and services at the jail seven days a week. And they are on call 24-hours-a-day in case an inmate has a crisis.
Center staff have provided hours of consultation for jail and court staff involved in mental health and drug treatment courts to develop plans for care once offenders are released.
Another program is aimed at Guilford County Schools students who miss class time while in the jail. For some students, the system will send in a teacher to continue their education while they are incarcerated.
“The idea is that when they get out, they walk right back into the classroom, if that’s possible,” Williamson said.
The Prodigal Son program connects selected inmates with a drug treatment program after release. Eight people entered it last year.
In the program, the county pays for beds for a set period of time at Caring Services. The nonprofit organization provides housing and other support services for recovering alcoholics, addicts and their families. Candidates for Caring Services have substance abuse issues that are the primary concern that needs to be addressed to prevent recidivism.
“Their charges may not be serious enough to send them to the Department of Corrections,” Williamson said. “But they still need services.”
The jail is also testing new programs.
In August, the High Point jail started testing the use of computer tablets for running programs. They are provided by Pay Tel Communications, the vendor that provides phone services for inmates, according to Pay Tel President Vincent Townsend.
The program is operated by Edovo (Education Over Obstacles), whose mission is to reduce recidivism by providing technology-based education and rehabilitation to inmates.
On the tablets, inmates can choose from a number of different classes offered on a private server — employment, finance, math, English, family skills, anger management or even success in court appearances. The last teaches inmates how to appear and behave in the courtroom.
In the first week of August, 95 inmates spent 8,751 hours working on educational programs on the tablets, according to jail data. During the second week, 99 inmates burned 6,263 hours working educational programs.
“Anger Management” and “Math — Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division” were the top-viewed apps, each having 27 inmates start the course.
For every hour of education the inmates undertake, they receive points to spend on watching movies, listening to music or doing other activities on the tablets.
“It’s helping guys think about stuff from a different perspective,” Townsend said. “We think the tablet has a huge potential as a tool.”
Technicians are testing the jail in Greensboro to determine where best to place networking links, so the program can operate there. A goal is to have the tablets working in both jails before February.
“It’s really become a popular piece for the inmates,” Williamson said. “Now, we’re doing site surveys to see what kind of networking we’ll have to do to get it up and running here.”
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford