Dade jailer Joseph Chambers and library manager Marshana Sharp have put their heads together to create the "Next Chapter" rehab program for inmates.
Dade is a community that, whatever its divisions, rivalries and infighting (and these are legion), comes together every time to take care of its own. Dade shines in a pinch. This has been demonstrated after the 2011 tornadoes, each year during the Festival of Life for local cancer victims, and most recently during the outpouring of love and support for a local law enforcement officer grievously injured in the line of duty.
Now the county jailer and the county library manager—with a little help from a county church—demonstrate that community spirit again in “Next Chapter,” an ambitious alliance to address an ongoing problem: how to reintegrate jail inmates into Dade life. “The whole transition from jail to the outside world, work and freedom, there’s no support for that,” said Joseph Chambers, Dade’s jail administrator.
Chambers and Marshana Sharp, manager of the Dade County Public Library, speaking at Dade First’s monthly community information luncheon last Thursday, described how they had put their heads together on this problem. Chambers spoke first at the Sept. 27 meeting.
As jailer, he said, he approved of the function of the library in general. If a kid gets used to walking in there during childhood, said Chambers, odds are: “They won’t come to see me when they reach adulthood.”
But he recently began to speculate that walking into the library after getting out of jail might help an inmate avoid coming to see him again and again.
Without support, said Chambers, recidivism is pretty much the norm, even for inmates who get along well in the jail. “Anybody can function as long as they’re being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it,” he said. The problem, he said, is when an inmate is released back into the mainstream to sink, swim—or, more usually, go back to the behavior that got him arrested in the first place.
In the past few years, that situation has improved in Dade with the advent of Celebrate Recovery, a support group run by the Trenton Ministry Center. Chambers said he’d attended some of the group’s Thursday night meetings and had seen some familiar faces. “It’s a humbling experience to see people there who used to be my regulars,” he said.
And out of Celebrate Recovery has grown, in the past two years, a sister program called “Hand Up,” basically halfway houses for both men and women. This has provided for another need that, if neglected, often sends offenders back to their former ways: transitional housing.
But that still leaves the problem of learning new behaviors, and that, said Chambers, is where “Next Chapter” and the library can help.
For one thing, he said, the library has computers and internet access free for anyone to use. Those things are vital for everyday life these days, and ex-cons need them to apply for jobs and take remedial courses. “A lot of them will say, ‘I don’t have a computer at home,’” said Chamber. “This takes that out of the equation.”
Library manager Marshana Sharp spoke next, explaining that computer skills will be one important component of the Next Chapter program. It will be pretty basic stuff, but: “If they know how to do it, they’ll breeze right through it,” she said. “If they don’t, we can teach them.”
Another commonsense item on the Next Chapter list is even more basic: making sure each former inmate has a Social Security card and valid driver’s license or other picture ID. “That what a lot of them run into,” said Ms. Sharp. “They can’t get a job without that.”
Ms. Sharp works with jail trusties often. Trusties are inmates deemed
reliable and well-enough behaved to participate in work details outside the county lockup. They pick up trash on the county roads, schlep garbage and recyclables at the county transfer station and work extensively with landscaping and maintenance for the city and county governments and several civic organizations, to the point that The Planet has often speculated civilization in Dade would grind to a halt without them. At the library, Ms. Sharp uses them to move furniture, clean and decorate for upcoming programs and clear up later.
Dade trusties, who seem uniformly to enjoy the chance to get out of the lockup for a few hours, are generally found by those who use their labor to be willing and courteous workers and good people. It’s just, as Ms. Sharp put it: “Somewhere along the road they missed something.”
(Photo: Dade trusties weed a flowerbed as Tree City's Eloise Gass supervises.)
To remedy that, she and Chambers are designing a lineup of Next Chapter computer courses. Some training will be live courses, but keeping most of them online will allow Chambers to administer them in the jail while inmates are still doing their time.
Chambers explained, parenthetically, that the jail does have tablets with limited internet access available for inmates. “Security is obviously a huge concern,” he said. “If they can get outside the system, I know we need more security.”
Next Chapter courses, whether taken at the jail or the library, will include subjects as anger/stress management, relationships, budgeting, interviewing and job skills, health, nutrition, safety and basic vehicle maintenance. Students will take tests in each course and earn certificates for completing modules.
If this sounds interesting to the reader, Ms. Sharp just happens to be recruiting volunteers to teach some of the modules. Prospective teachers can use equipment at the library’s new sound studio to record segments, she said.
Ms. Sharp and Chambers hope Next Chapter will turn out graduates capable of supporting themselves with honest jobs, and with that end they have worked with local employers who have agreed to hire them. They hope to launch the new program by January.
One requirement for participating in Next Chapter is that former inmates must attend Celebrate Recovery sessions as well. Rex Mayo, who with his wife Tammy runs Celebrate Recovery and the transitional housing project Hand Up, also spoke at the Sept. 27 luncheon.
Mayo (right) explained the benefit of having this kind of rehabilitation program right in Dade County. One parolee he’d worked with had been ordered by a judge to take an anger management course as a condition of his freedom. This had in turn required Mayo and crew to come up with about $1000 for work on the man’s car so that he could drive to Dalton a couple of times a week to take the classes. “We are working to get the judges and DA’s office on board with us,” said Mayo.
Mayo also spoke of the Celebrate Recovery—“CR,” as habituées call it—program itself. It’s been around for three and a half years now, he said, and has grown to the point it offers free meals, free child care and, within reason, free transportation for those who couldn’t otherwise get there. It meets at 6 p.m. every Thursday at the Trenton Ministry Center (1 Georgia Ave.), and Mayo said participants are so devoted to it they show up even on Thanksgiving Day. “I wish we could have some dinner for them,” he said. (Readers, are you sensing another volunteer opportunity here?)
CR welcomes not just former inmates and not just those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction but those struggling with any issue that has smacked them to the mat--divorce or grief or depression, for example.
Two years ago, said Mayo, CR opened the Hand Up transitional program, and this has also proved beneficial to former inmates and has also kept expanding. “I’m praying for a farm,” said Mayo. Through that program, he said, two women are obtaining a home of their own and one is now working to reunite with her children, whom she hasn’t even been allowed to visit for over a year. “I almost feel like a daddy,” he said.
All in all, said Mayo, the community is working so hard to fix the parts of it who are broken—“We’re all broken people,” said Mayo. “Some of us are just smart enough to stay out of jail”—that one former inmate told him it had been God’s will he got arrested in Dade where he could get so much help.
“You don’t get that in every county you go to,” said Mayo.
If you’d like to learn more, or if you’d like to help, you may call Marshana Sharp at (706) 657-7857, Joseph Chambers at (706) 657-3233, or Rex Mayo at (706) 657-6920.
For anyone interested in learning about the Dade community and how to participate in it, the Dade First monthly luncheon is a great place to start. It is at the Dade Public Library at 12:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of the month. For more information, readers may call Martha Bates at (423) 883-6938.