Every morning at 5:30 sharp, John Kelley leaves for his job at Tennier Industries in Huntsville. Dressed in jeans with an energy drink in hand, John fits in nicely with his coworkers at the factory, where he has made a name for himself as a hard worker and friendly face since his first day in mid-January of this year.
But when Kelley’s coworkers head back home after a long day on the job, John is transported back to the Scott County Justice Center, where he is finishing up the final months of a six-year sentence. Currently incarcerated, John Kelley is one of nine inmates enrolled in STAND’s Correctional Career Program that grants local inmates the opportunity to work full time, earn full wages, and receive full benefits to help them build a solid foundation for a healthy, productive lifestyle after their release.
For Kelley, whose current stint in jail is not his first, the program has been life changing. “If they were to let me out right now, I could go buy a vehicle, go get a place to live. But in reality, if they would’ve turned me loose six months ago, I wouldn’t have had much to turn to other than what I’ve always known– which ultimately would have led me right back here. So as far as how its changed my life–It’s given me a second chance. The STAND program has helped me to stand.”
Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission through East Tennessee State University’s Tennessee Institute of Public Health, the progressive initiative, launched in January, focuses on changing the mindset and lifestyles of inmates who struggle with substance use disorder. Inmates convicted on drug charges, or drug related charges–like stealing to pay for a drug habit–are eligible to enroll in the program that emphasizes a need for change, rather than punishment. “Jail’s for rehabilitation, it’s not just for punishment,” said S.T.A.N.D. Executive Director Trent Coffey, “and we want to make sure we are taking the role of rehabilitation seriously to prepare inmates for life after incarceration.”
Prior to their first day on the job at Tennier, inmates receive 40 hours of evidence-based educational training that prepares them for strong decision making, work-place etiquette, money management, and more. Once they begin working, S.T.A.N.D. helps them set up a bank account with the option of direct deposit. Inmates are required to first pay off restitutions, fines, child support, and a small monthly percentage to S.T.A.N.D. that helps keep the program running. Inmates are encouraged to save between twenty to twenty-five percent of the rest of their earnings, but what they decide to do with their leftover income is ultimately up to them. “We’re trying to encourage independence,” said Coffey.
Inmates also receive assistance with setting up their social security numbers and driver’s licenses–a long, tedious process that Coffey says is challenging with money, time and resources–and nearly impossible without them. “I feel like inmates are set up to fail because of the barriers in place,” said Coffey, “This program is removing many of those barriers so that they can become productive members of society and take advantage of any opportunities that may come their way.”
The four alumni of the program who successfully completed their terms in jail have done just that: two are still working at Tennier, while the other two left for more lucrative work opportunities on the road. Zero of the alumni have faced any further charges since their release.
For STAND community coordinator Dale Owens, the program’s staggering 100% success rate was no surprise. “Right off the bat, we knew that this program could be something that works,” said Owens.
TAKING A CHANCE
Thankfully, HR Director Lynn Owens of Tennier felt the same way about the program–and needed little convincing to hop on board. With Scott County’s unemployment reaching record lows, Tennier’s potential hiring pool had dwindled down to nothing when STAND reached out about the idea of allowing inmates to join the workforce.
Owens’ quick embrace of the program was met with skepticism, and even fear, by many of her employees who were reluctant to work side by side with incarcerated individuals. However, their worries were acknowledged and addressed by the program’s strict protocol that values safety to the public above all else.
No violent offenders are eligible for the program, and Sheriff Ronnie Phillips hand selects non-violent offenders for the program based on good behavior. A trained work-place supervisor monitors the inmates for any suspicious actions, and inmates are required to stay within the building walls from arrival until departure. Drug testing occurs twice weekly with a zero tolerance policy; if an inmate is found to be using, or violating any of the program rules, they are immediately expelled from the program with no chance of returning in the future.
Through the strict safety protocols in place and a genuine willingness of the inmates to better their lives, there have been zero incidents reported in the workplace. “We’ve gained their trust at Tennier,” said Sheriff Phillips,
Over time, employees at Tennier have all but forgotten their initial worries and have whole-heartedly embraced the inmates whom they now consider to just be coworkers–and even close friends. “They are truly just another employee,” said HR Assistant Dewayne Jeffers.
“At first, you could tell that they were a little skeptical. But they’re all really supportive. I want for nothing out there,” said Kelley, who has formed a number of meaningful friendships with the employees at Tennier with whom he works side by side.
His coworkers regularly bring him cookies and energy drinks, and one woman even gave him twenty dollars one day after God put it on her heart to do so. Kelley protested at first, but when she refused to take the bill back, he returned the gesture by setting her up on a date with his former boss at the Road Department. The date must have went pretty well; the two are in a romantic relationship to this day.
“These guys have been incredible to work with,” said Owens, “and I’m really proud of the employees for embracing the group.”
COMMUNITY WIDE EFFORT; COMMUNITY WIDE IMPACT
From the program’s early planning stages in July of 2018 to where it is today, it has been a community wide effort. Scott Appalachian Industries partnered with STAND for the purchase of the bus used to transport inmates to and from Tennier, and Mayor Jeff Tibbals and Sheriff Phillips have provided input and support for the program since its inception.
“When I heard this was happening, especially with the shortage of employees local companies were having, I said ‘as a trial basis, let’s do this,” said Mayor Tibbals.
For the Mayor, the program offers as much value to the tax-paying citizens of Scott County as it does to the inmates who are being given a second chance.
“We have the opioid problem, and we have the meth problem, and that’s the biggest thing people go to jail for–they’re doing the drugs, getting caught with the drugs, or stealing to support the drugs. We’re beyond capacity. If we could prevent people having to come back due to getting busted again for the same old thing, it lowers problems in the jail like overcrowdedness. It costs money to house inmates…[the program] will lower the costs for citizens of the county if it continues to work like it seems to be working.”
Sheriff Phillips has noticed a positive impact on the culture within the jail, too. “Going to work gives inmates something to look forward to,” said Phillips. With inmates eager to get involved in the program, disciplinary issues have decreased, and inmates who are enrolled in the program often payback the generosity shown to them by their coworkers at Tennier by helping out inmates without an income in need of cash here and there.
Finally, the program has an immeasurable impact on the families of the inmates who often suffer due to the sudden loss of income. Norma native Gary Sellers, who works on the sewing machine at Tennier, has saved enough through the program to start a mobile welding business when he is released this October–and has already purchased a truck and welding equipment for a seamless transition from inmate to business owner next month. But his proudest achievement through the program has been helping his family in a time of need. “The boy of mine’s house burnt, and I was able to help.” Sellers helped purchase a trailer for his son and his family to live in after the fire. “Instead of just benefitting the workers, it helps our whole families.”
CHANGING STIGMA & HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
One of the aspects of the program that Coffey is proudest of is the ongoing conversation about addiction that it’s opened up.
“Some of the employees at Tennier have opened up to the inmates about friends or family members in their lives who are struggling with addiction. It’s opening up a conversation, taking away the stigma of addiction and putting a real face on it.” said Coffey. “Recovery is possible, and situations don’t define human beings. We’re giving them another chance–and maybe it’s a second chance, or a third chance, or a fourth chance, but we’re giving them another chance with structure and support that they may have never had.”
Thanks to just-announced funding from a state grant, the Correctional Career Program will continue to impact the inmates, their families, their coworkers, and our community for at least another year. “The Three Star Community Grant will help us continue the program for another year so that we can continue to show the intrinsic value and impact it has on the inmate population,” said Coffey. “The real impact will be seeing if former clients continue to maintain a productive, drug-free lifestyle positively affecting their families and our community as a whole. We hope some of our champions of the program will become sponsors of new clients and continue the cycle of recovery.”
One future champion comes to mind. John Kelley, who will be released within the next six months, is optimistic about the future of the program after witnessing its impact on his own life. “Imagine how much this could help so many people. It’s a revolving door–and I’m not proud of that–but I speak from experience,” said John Kelley. “I’ve got feet to stand on now.”