033017 Law enforcement: A jail expansion designed to keep inmates out
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Inmates renovate a warehouse at the jail to expand the re-entry program.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Law enforcement: A jail expansion designed to keep inmates out

By Nikki Best

He didn’t know it at the time, but for former inmate Joshua Lee, incarceration wasn’t the end. It was a new beginning.

In 2008, staring down the barrel of an eight-year prison sentence that began at Walden Correctional Institution in Columbia, it felt like the end. Four years in, Lee got the chance to transfer to Georgetown Detention Center and enrolled in the re-entry program shortly after arrival.

“It was a true life changer,” he said.

The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Re-entry Services program was established by Sheriff Lane Cribb with a simple mission to reduce inmate recidivism. For the last 10 years that strategy has worked. None of the 260 graduates have returned to prison, and while that number continues to grow, services for the inmates are expanding.

“We’re getting ready to launch a training center,” executive director Debbie Barr said.

An old warehouse on the grounds of the detention center is being converted into classroom space for those enrolled. The work is largely being done by the inmates, under the direction of facility services, Barr said. Refurbishment should be finished in the next six months.

“I see so much potential for these guys in a larger area,” she said. “Not having to pack up every time and move things, it will be so much better for the volunteers.”

Lee is grateful he had the opportunity to enter the program. He said he originally transferred correctional centers to be closer to family, but the rehabilitation program was calling his name as soon as he arrived.

“I saw the other guys get released from prison, they were so happy,” he said. “I saw Ms. Barr take guys on job interviews and that’s when I knew that was where I wanted to be.”

The program offers inmates the chance to learn HVAC, auto body repair, carpentry, landscaping, plumbing, roofing, light construction equipment operation, insulation or how to be a barber. In addition to the job training, they also take classes in life skills such as reading, math, situational awareness and response, and how to confront habits that may lead them back to jail.

“HVAC is the most popular program,” Barr said.

There are costs associated with the program. Welders, automotive lifts, circular saws, HVAC gauges and more. These training tools are not cheap, but the costs are split between the county and the program’s associated nonprofit, Amazing Journey.

“In 2015, the program saved the county over $300,000,” Collin Jewell, president of the board that runs Amazing Journey, said.

This was achieved by the hands-on training that the inmates do each day with county facility services. The inmates are highly skilled workers and their efforts on county projects, like the renovation of the courthouse in Litchfield Exchange or rebuilding of beach walkways, save the county in labor costs.

Amazing Journey was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Bunnelle Foundation last year to help outfit the new classroom space. The grant covered the cost of new teaching and safety equipment.

“We’ve also looked for sources of funding from the South Carolina Department of Workforce Solutions,” Jewell said. “There’s some federal grants also. We’re still trying to find the right one there.”

In addition to the new class space, the program is growing through exchange. A partnership with Allendale Correctional Center in Fairfax has been forged.

“We’ve been reaching out to other facilities in the state,” Jewell said. “That warden out there believes more in rehabilitation than locking someone up and throwing away the key.”

Allendale created several programs to rehabilitate inmates, including a basic preparation program that follows the same vein as Georgetown’s. Inmates can make a request through the SCDC to transfer.

Lee graduated the program on July 1, 2016. Between the computer work and books at night and hands-on training during the day he was able to earn his HVAC and electrical licenses. He now works in Surfside Beach. He was with Barr for 3 1/2 years and is still overwhelmed by how she and Sheriff Cribb changed his life, he said. Lee advocates for other inmates to get involved.

“Miss Debbie is a blessing,” he said. “We try to write to the guys back in prison. For the ones who really want to change, to try to get to Georgetown County and get in that program.”

The program is successful because of all the services offered, but it’s looking to add one more in the near future. An addition of donated housing that will be set up next to the detention center will give newly released inmates a temporary place to live.

“So the guys can rent them for six months or so, and they’re still close by,” Jewell said. “Debbie can still kind of monitor them and check in so they don’t fall back into their old ways.”

Barr is excited for the opportunity to add another step to help the guys move on with their lives, but will continue to teach them that nothing in life comes free. It’s about the work, she said.

“We’re all about offering them a hand up, not a hand out,” Barr said.

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