HELENA — When Lewis and Clark County voters approved a 15-year operations levy for the county detention center in 2017, it not only paid for staffing an expanded jail space, but also for a wide array of programs aimed at creating a path away from repeat offenses.
After the levy passed, the county set up the Department of Criminal Justice Services. Earlier this year, the department launched the Education and Reentry Program within the detention center, focusing on making connections between the community and those who are incarcerated.
“What we get to do is – the coined phrase is ‘bridge the gap’ – from literally the door opening to the choices they will have, to either start doing things differently or go back to the same things that brought them back here time and again,” said Dustin, a volunteer for one of the programs.
More than 40 volunteers are currently working regularly in the detention center. They include people like Greg, who has spent about four months working with inmates in a 12-step program to address addiction.
“There’s a promise: If they don’t ever want to be back here again, they don’t ever have to be back here again,” he said. “I’ll guarantee them, I’ll promise them – if they work the steps and do what the program asks, they don’t ever have to come back.”
Jocelyn Olsen is the coordinator for the Education and Reentry Program. She says the individual interactions with volunteers are key to the program’s success.
“As it is with everyone, if we can make a human-to-human connection, that lasts a whole lot longer than just names of different resources,” she said.
Eventually, the county hopes to offer Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, multiple chaplain services and workshops to help inmates develop life skills for when they return to the community.
Detention Officer Aaron McBride says the programs are having impacts on inmates.
“It could be as little as them having a better night that night, or as big as them ready to change their lives and start taking those steps in the direction that they need to be taking for reentry,” he said.
Volunteers say it may take time, but they believe what they’re doing is making a difference.
“There’s a lot of guys that come in after being here for a few months, that I’ve seen time and again, who have the wide bright eyes and are excited to be a part of something,” said Dustin.
“I hope we give them hope,” said Greg. “That’s what I want to do.”
Olsen said the county is always looking for more people to volunteer, so they can further expand these programs. If you are interested in participating, you can contact the Education and Reentry Program. Olsen’s office is now located at the front of the detention center.
The extensive renovation of the detention center also provided more dedicated spaces for programs like this.
“Before, we were really kind of fitting people in small hallways, for lack of a better term, where we would try to do a meeting with 12 people in there – and it’s crammed, it’s tight, it’s not adequate,” said McBride.
Olsen said county leaders are grateful for all that the voter-approved levy has allowed them to do.