An Ada County Jail program aims to prepare inmates for a new life

Sean Morrison celebrated his 21st birthday by getting out of jail. Now he is taking classes at the College of Western Idaho and planning a new life.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 15, 2013 

  • On the floor, in the know

    Think of a jail and one often pictures the “crow’s nest,” an elevated glass-walled room where jailers keep watch on the inmates, physically and literally removed from jail interactions and activity.

    At the Ada County Jail, the crow's nest has sat empty nearly two decades.

    One thing Ada County does differently from many jails around the country is use “direct supervision” — stationing its deputies on the floor with the inmates in nearly all areas of the facility.

    Yes, it requires more staff and it takes a special kind of person to do the job. But in the long run, Ada County Sheriff’s Office programs supervisor Chris Saunders explained, it makes the jail safer and saves money from costly inmate or employee injuries or lawsuits.

    The advantage is the deputies get a “feel” for the room, Saunders said. They hear conversations, they interact with the inmates and they can more easily recognize changes in behavior than they could perched in a glass room, isolated from the inmates.

    Saunders also said inmates are less likely to try and hide things or act aggressively if a deputy is constantly in the room. It also can be safer for the deputies, because they are so aware of what is going on they can tell when the tension in the room changes and react appropriately.

  • Resource fair will help those recently released

    For recently released inmates, re-entry into an unscripted life can be a daunting and difficult challenge. Many struggle to find housing, employment, medical care and other social services. They often need guidance, but don’t know where to go.

    A group of Ada County organizations working to change that will host the third annual Community Information and Resource Fair on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

    More than 100 organizations are participating in the event, including government agencies such as the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, Pretrial Services and state probation and parole; faith-based organizations like Interfaith Sanctuary Housing Services and the Vineyard Jail and Prison Ministry; and community providers like the Women’s & Children’s Alliance and Treasure Valley Community College. The organizations will have representatives at the fair who will pass out information and answer questions.

    While the public can attend, the fair is targeted toward case managers, parole/probation officers, volunteers, mentors and workforce consultants so they can identify and understand the wide breadth of community resources available for former inmates who are re-entering society.

    “Offender re-entry is a community issue, not a prison or jail issue,” said Mike Moser, jail and alternatives program manager at the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.

    The resource fair will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Vineyard Christian Fellowship, 4950 N. Bradley St., Garden City.

  • Ada County Jail re-entry dorm: community standards

    Typically, jails are full of rules. Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t, don’t, don’t. Ada County Sheriff’s Office programs supervisor Chris Saunders said the new re-entry program focuses on positive reinforcement and empowerment.

    One way to accomplish this is to focus inmates on what they can do — and have them create that list themselves.

    The re-entry program’s first class of inmates came up with this:

    1. I will keep myself and my area clean.

    2. I will utilize acceptable language at all times.

    3. I will respect the opinion of others.

    4. I will maintain a positive attitude and environment.

    5. I will take accountability for my actions.

    6. I will treat others and myself with respect.

    7. I will utilize the chain of intervention.

    8. I will actively participate in the dorm community.

    9. I will maintain a clean and sober mind and attitude.

    10. I will assert myself to help others.

    11. I will appreciate the uniqueness of everyone.

    12. I will follow all jail rules and program expectations.

  • Cynthia Sewell

    Cynthia was named Idaho’s reporter of the year

    in 2009 by the Idaho Press Club.

Sean Morrison celebrated his 21st birthday by getting out of jail.

He’d served 933 days in the Ada County Jail. That had followed an 18-month stint at the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections in St. Anthony. From age 13 to 21, he spent six and a half years locked up.

“I missed out on my teenage years,” Morrison said.

But four months after he walked out of jail and started a full-time job, Morrison is taking classes at the College of Western Idaho and planning a new life.

Morrison credits the jail staff and its innovative job, education and socialization programs for turning his life around.

“I really like Sean. I hope I never see him again,” said Chris Saunders, the programs supervisor for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.

That is the jail’s goal.


Taxpayers pay $85 a day to house inmates at the Ada County Jail. On top of that, each day an inmate spends in jail is another day he or she is not out working, paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

Eighty-five percent of inmates in the Ada County Jail are repeat offenders — “frequent flyers” who cycle in and out of jail.

A jail can do the bare minimum — lock up its inmates, keep them until their time is up and then push them out the door. That may be the cheapest short-term, but in the long run that costs taxpayers and society, Saunders said.

So, for the past several years, the jail has offered opportunities for inmates to better themselves.

“If it doesn't increase public safety, it is not something we want to be doing,” Saunders said.

Warehousing inmates without options for treatment, education or employment decreases public safety: Inmates are often released angrier than when they went in. With no job prospects or social connections, they are more likely to commit new crimes out of frustration, hardship or untreated substance abuse or mental problems.

So inmates can work on a GED or take — usually at their own expense — behavioral-change and substance-abuse classes.

The four-week programs are hard work. Inmates plow through 150-page workbooks, such as “Relapse Prevention” or “Release and Integration Preparation.”

Ada County is one of six jails around the country selected in August 2012 by the National Institute of Corrections to participate in the Transition from Jail to Community initiative. As part of the program, the Ada County Jail will receive technical assistance in implementing the TJC model for a 2 1/2-year period. No other Idaho jails offer a comparable program.

Jail stays are short-term, typically less than a year; prisons stays are long-term. A short jail stay, even just a couple of months, can quickly wreak havoc on a life — jobs, schooling, finances and relationships are all interrupted, some irreparably.

According to an Urban Institute Justice Policy Center study, in an average three-week period, local jails have contact with as many people as state and federal prisons do in a year. Those entering jails face major obstacles: 68 percent have drug or alcohol problems, 60 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED, 16 percent have a serious mental illness and 14 percent were homeless at some point during the year before.

Reducing recidivism and getting inmates integrated into the community requires addressing deep-rooted problems and turning out inmates in a better state than they arrived.

“The jail can’t do everything. The community can’t do everything,” Saunders said. “But together, in partnership, we can work together.”

Drawing on the strengths and skills of different community partners is one of the premises behind the Jail to Community initiative. Ada County is working with the Idaho Department of Labor, employers, social service groups, the courts and other groups to build a network of resources and opportunities for soon-to-be or newly released inmates.

Easter Seals Goodwill is one of the jail’s community partners. DeLanie Valentine, director of behavioral health and family services, has visited jails across the country. She said the Ada County Jail rises to the top.

“They are so innovative,” she said. “They like new ideas and they are always looking for better ways to improve.”

Her agency has worked with the jail’s re-entry program since 2009. The new Jail to Community program “takes what they are already doing well and polishes it and closes some gaps,” she said, by creating individual profiles for each inmate and better coordinating with community providers.

Under the Jail to Community program, which started in May, 36 inmates live together in a separate dorm and complete a five-week program. The program is just for male inmates, which make up about 82 percent of the jail’s population.

The program offers inmates four classes: budgeting and finance, workforce readiness, job search, and parenthood, which is recommended even if the inmate is not a parent.

“The class teaches them not only how to step up as a parent, but as a parental figure in the community,” Saunders said.

The re-entry program also helps the inmates prepare for going back into society by giving them some responsibility and autonomy. The inmates select their own group leaders and, instead of each inmate being given a specific cleaning chore or other task, the group is given a list of items it must accomplish.

One of the key tenets of the program is placing unemployed inmates in jobs upon release.

“Sean Morrison was our very first client referred to the Idaho Department of Labor through the Workforce Reinvestment Act,” Saunders said.

Since Morrison in May, three more Ada County Jail inmates have found jobs through the new program.

Morrison got a job at Second Chance Buildings Materials Center, a second-hand home-improvement store run by the nonprofit organization Supportive Housing and Innovative Partnerships, or SHIP.

Securing an inmate a job is important on several levels. It provides immediate income, new social connections and positive reinforcement, and it keeps boredom, that harbinger of bad behavior, at bay.

Morrison said walking into a full-time job has really helped him stay focused on staying out of jail.

“It keeps me busy. I get along with everyone there and it is going for a good cause. It makes me feel better that I am helping other people out,” he said.


“Young and dumb.”

Morrison said that is why he ended up spending much so much time in detention or jail.

“I was just being a bad kid. I started stealing,” he said.

He went to juvenile detention, got out and then just couldn’t stick to his probation conditions.

“I would get bored and then I would start doing stupid stuff. Boredom is your worst enemy. I would PV out,” he said, referring to his numerous probation violations that ultimately landed him in the Ada County Jail until his 21st birthday.

He started working in the jail’s kitchen. He took behavior and substance abuse classes. He got his GED. And he realized he wanted to change. He was tired of wasting time in jail.

But trying to change while in jail is not easy. Staying that course upon release is even more difficult.

“Jail is a big ball of negativity. You’ve got the swearing, the attitudes … sometimes it is easier to go along than step up,” Morrison said.

This is where jail staff and programs came in.

“It pretty much boils down to choice, but not everyone has the right tools to make the right choice,” Morrison said. “You need programs that will give people a second chance. You need it for the people who want to change.”

While the staff provided encouragement and positive reinforcement, Morrison said they didn’t set him up with unrealistic expectations. He wasn’t told he could do anything or be anything. He was given realistic advice — set small goals, use baby steps. Get a bicycle for transportation. Open a bank account. Join a church or social group.

Both Saunders and Morrison agree the jail programs will not work for all inmates.

“There will always be people who don’t care, who don’t want to change. It comes down to your humanity,” Morrison said.

Morrison said he understands why some people want to return to jail. Being locked up, in a way, can be liberating, he said.

“You are free from making decisions because they are all made for you,” he said.

Making good decisions is challenging, he said.

“When you start doing good, you have to work harder. You have to make good decisions. It is stressful,” he said. “It can be done. You have to work at it. It may be hard, but what else are going to do? Go back to jail?

“I am done with jail. It is a negative environment. I don’t need it anymore.”

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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