Several months ago, Spartanburg County Council Chairman Jeff Horton asked Maj. Neal Urch, jail director, and Henry Giles, president of Spartanburg Community College, if something could be done to keep people from returning to the jail. Horton became interested in doing something after years of seeing the same faces in mugshots.
“I think the general theme is they are just trapped in the way they are in now, and they don't know another way,” Horton said.
Surveys of the jail found the average inmate had a 10th grade education. The vast majority of those who did not have a high school diploma or GED said they wanted one, Urch said. Recent changes to the GED make offering courses in the jail cumbersome because of time and expense. But by combining the Work Keys program currently at the jail with some skills training, Urch, Giles and Horton began to believe the education gap could be overcome.
Urch and Giles assembled a team and the conversations that ensued set the stage for a program some leaders believe will become a model for criminal justice reform.
“Detention in itself does not modify behavior,” Giles said. “To give someone job training and skills, they can make an impact on their own lives.”
Beginning April 13, the community college will offer job training and program certificates at the county jail. Four programs – office assistant, bakery/floral/deli grocer, landscaper and manufacturing assistant – have been custom designed to be taught at the jail, said Nannette Bongiovi, director of corporate and community education for the college. Each program incorporates skills training – cake decorating, small engine repair, and computer programs – and coaches less tangible skills like problem solving, making decisions under stress and communication. There is also a work readiness component to each class that covers personal grooming, crafting a resume and preparing for an interview.
“We wanted to offer basic classes that will challenge them, but not to the point they will get frustrated,” Bongiovi said.
Each program will be in four-hour blocks, five days each week for four weeks. Eight inmates and two alternates have been selected for each program based on a group of volunteers. Inmates were chosen on a list of criteria that included the nature of their charges, their expected length of stay, and education attainment, Urch said. All of the partners wanted individuals selected for the project that were likely to succeed, he said.
With help from the Upstate Workforce Investment Board and S.C. Works Upstate, the programs were chosen to target businesses with jobs available that might be willing to hire employees with a criminal record.
There are about 2,500 open jobs in Spartanburg County, according to S.C. Works Upstate. The county is nearing full employment, said Dana Wood, program and project manager for the Upstate Workforce Investment Board. While the county's unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, convicts have significant barriers to employment, she said.
In today's economy, finding a job without a high school diploma or job-specific training is difficult, Wood said.
“There are a few opportunities, but they are minimum wage and few and far between,” she said.
The project fits the Upstate Workforce Investment Board's mission of connecting people to jobs. The board also plans to sponsor some inmates as they move through the programs.
“This is a great audience that obviously needs some services,” Wood said. “We have a captive audience. If we can make better use of their time, hopefully they can get jobs and not go back to the same activities that got them in the jail.”
The cost of each program is about $1,700 per participant. S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation is also involved in sponsoring inmates, and Horton said he has been in touch with Spartanburg County Foundation about possibly being a sponsor.
At the conclusion of the first week of classes, Wood said the backgrounds and histories of each inmate will be presented to a business services team that will try to match each student inmate to an employer willing to hire them upon release.
“With this being a pilot program, we kind of have to prove ourselves,” Wood said. “Hopefully employers can move past yes, this person made some bad decisions. They served their time, and they are trying to move on. We're trying to find them a second chance.”
Deputy Robert Duclose, who works in inmate services at the jail, said the vast majority of inmates are unemployed and that is often a factor in their incarceration. And almost 95 percent of the people booked into the jail are released, Duclose said.
“I tell (inmates) all the time, 'I haven't hit rock bottom like you have. If I didn't have a job and couldn't feed my family, I might make the same decisions you have,'” he said. “They are going back into the community. We want to get them paying taxes and being contributing members of society… They are your neighbor right now.”
Sgt. Bill Church said the jail has been trying a wide combination of programs and partnerships over the last two years to address recidivism in an attempt to decrease the jail population and financial burden on taxpayers. There is no statistically reliable data on how recidivism has been affected, but Church said the average daily population of the jail has decreased, which he sees as an indication the programs are working.
“Looking at the jail as a bigger picture, trying to break the cycle of recidivism means addressing community issues,” Church said. “We try to attack every issue we see that could be a factor in their life.”
The program faced significant obstacles, including funding, unpredictable length of inmate stays, space constraints and business partnerships. Several of those struggles are ongoing, with the partners scrambling to find businesses willing to donate QuickBooks licenses, or find space for heavy equipment training like operating a forklift or welding.
Partners in the program said they think they are breaking new ground by offering these services in a jail setting.
“There's no going out there and saying 'How did you do this?'” Duclose said. “It doesn't exist.”
Horton said he's willing to gamble on this program because of the partners involved, especially SCC.
“If we can keep four, five, six, seven people out of the jail, I think we've done a good job,” Horton said. “I believe in SCC. They never let me down on any endeavor whatsoever.”
For Giles, the program is a sound financial decision to help people find jobs and to contribute to the tax base instead of having them committing crimes again and draining county revenues as an inmate. And it fits a larger mission of providing avenues to advancement.
“Our role here at the college is to help people through education,” he said. “We are up to this challenge, and I think we will be the model for the state.”
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