SECOND OF A THREE-PART SERIES

When Beverly Weeks and Jonathan Chavous with the Wayne Pregnancy Center and Cry Freedom ministry approached Maj. Robert Thaxton nearly a year ago offering to lead classes for inmates, he was hesitant.

Thaxton, administrator of the Wayne County Detention Center, and staff were maxed out with all the responsibilities that dealing with an overcrowded jail can bring. Local jails, Thaxton says, have become the “catch-all for everything.”

“We’ve got to change our philosophy, as far as what we’re going to do inside here to help these people,” he said. “I say it all the time to the sheriff, I say it all the time to anybody, there are people in this jail, yes, they committed a crime, but they do not belong here.

“They’re in here because of mental illness, or they’re addicted to drugs, and they’re going out to support what they’re doing, committing mediocre misdemeanor crimes that land them in here. But they have nobody to help them. So they sit until they have their day in court and either they get released back to the street or they get sentenced and stay in here but eventually they go back to the street.”

GETTING READY

Breaking the cycle

Maj. Robert Thaxton, Wayne County Detention Center administrator, left, talks with Beverly Weeks and Jonathan Chavous, executive director and assistant director, respectively, of Wayne Pregnancy Center and Cry Freedom Missions, which spearheads a weekly life skills and educational program for female and male inmates at the jail.

Breaking the cycle requires some form of intervention, he said, which Chavous noted is a good description of what his group does.

Getting the program into the jail was a gamble at best, but Thaxton and Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce agreed to sign off on it.

The results have surprised them all.

Weeks recalled how the process began back in August when they noticed that most of the contacts they were meeting on the streets, in abandoned houses, hotels and other places, were being arrested. They thought bringing life skill classes to them while incarcerated would be a great way to continue their relationship and identify victims who were possibly involved in prostitution and sex trafficking but also those in bondage to addictions, she said.

The project required a lot of preparation and extensive training.

“There were a list of things we could not do, things we could do,” Weeks said. “We had to go through human trafficking training, and he (Thaxton) and his staff were very strict as to who we could bring in, what we could bring in and we had to be fully educated by the sheriff’s department as to pipelines, policies and procedures, that type of thing.”

There have been background checks and a slew of criteria met to ensure everyone’s safety and culpability, Thaxton said.

Fortunately, Weeks already had some “street cred” through her work at the pregnancy center, as well as with the faith-based community.

“She’s been out there a long time, fighting the fight,” Thaxton said. “So, when she approached me, I was excited. She comes in here with some fire.”

Pierce was also on board with trying out the proposal.

“He sees the problems that are out there and in here and he was like, if you think this is going to work we’ll give it a try,” Thaxton said. He explained the parameters and guidelines in a secure facility, he said.

“I said, bottom line, Beverly, we’ll try it. If it works, we’ll keep on rolling but if something doesn’t work out – and we see it isn’t going anywhere – we’ll pull the plug.

“We haven’t pulled the plug.”

WORKING WITH INMATES

The weekly visits, which started with the female inmates and later branched into a similar effort for the males, were much more successful than law enforcement staff anticipated.

“It was phenomenal from day one,” Thaxton said. It worked out with the females really well; the change in their behavior was evident, he said.

“Since she’s been here — knock on wood — my drama on that floor is almost non-existent,” Thaxton said, “and I attribute it to what she’s doing.”

“No. 1, she’s instilling stuff in them that some of these probably have never had and they don’t want to lose it,” he said.

This is particularly noteworthy considering the makeup of the incarcerated population.

“We can have murderers, gang members that were out on the streets (and) they can gather in that one room together without fighting against each other, just to hear hope,” Weeks said.

Thaxton admits it has been amazing to watch. Sometimes, he says, he’ll turn on the camera monitor in his office and take it all in.

“It’s like you shake your head because prior to (Cry Freedom) doing this, I was constantly moving female inmates to separate them because of the issues,” he said.

As Weeks often says, “Little girls don’t grow up saying, ‘I want to be a prostitute when I grow up’ or a stripper or a drug addict.”

And yet those in law enforcement do not have the time or the manpower to untangle all the things that led up to the arrests.

Thaxton said it is a tricky balance, especially for those whose job is to “get them in, get them out” of the jail. That, though, is old-school thinking.

“When I talk to the sheriff about how we’re running the jail now, I want to break that mold,” he said, “The perception (about the jail is), ‘You don’t care about them and you treat them to a substandard level,’ — which is not true. When (Weeks) approached me, I was excited for it because it came at probably a pinnacle time. About the time we were talking, Wayne County was being overrun by the heroin epidemic, the opioid epidemic.

“With her coming here, she’s helping us identify some of the problems, helping these people have an avenue of escape, to get away from that addiction.”

GODSEND

The extra layer of support for the incarcerated has been, quite simply, a Godsend, he says.

“I mean, really, the biggest thing that she brings in here, that they bring in here, is something these people have never seen before in a jail — it’s called hope,” he said. “Because for most people in here, there is no hope.

“We have a job to do. We’re not hired to do what they do. My job and my staff’s job is to make sure that (inmates are) cared for, protected and stay in here until they make bond or have their day in court. That’s what we’re employed to do. I don’t have the time, and my staff doesn’t have time, to counsel these people, to love on these people.”

He would not suggest that it is inappropriate to care about the inmates, he said, but it is a conflict of interest. There has to be a maintenance of security and boundaries.

“We preach it all the time — you can speak to inmates, you can help an inmate but you don’t form a bond with an inmate because if that ever happens, they’re gonna ask my people to do something that’s criminal. It will cause them to lose their jobs,” he said. “So when (Weeks) comes in here, it’s a totally different aspect.

“She can bring in that emotional piece.”

RUNNING A TIGHT SHIP

Thaxton is quick to add, Weeks and her crew run a tight ship.

They adhere to what they have learned in training and stick to the rules, Thaxton said. And it’s paying off.

“So far we’ve had zero incidents,” he said. “I have really stepped out on a limb because I’m trying to be innovative. The program, I had to sell to my own people. My own staff could’ve thought we were wasting our time. But the way I explained it back to them, if she doesn’t do anything but save one that does not ever come back in here, then we’ve had a victory and it is worth what they’re doing.

“She’s already surpassed the one,” Thaxton said. She has saved many, he said, and the more she does to stop recidivism – repeat offenders or those simply returning to the jail –  is a victory.

For Chavous, what his volunteers have brought to the table can be boiled down to valuing the inmates as human beings and helping them feel a sense of worth and value, no matter what they may have done.

People don’t really care how much you know until they know how much you care, he said. By sitting down for serious conversations with inmates that maybe lawyers or judges can’t have about why they did what they did.

“We’re going through and doing assessments — and not just uncovering what they’ve done here but why, how’d they get here?” Chavous said. “We’re finding out their stories, we’re finding out what’s taken place in their lives. We’re going down to even places in their childhood where they’ve experienced abuse, they’ve encountered trauma, and we’re beginning to kind of peel back the layers and provide opportunity for healing and for hope in those areas.”

GRATITUDE

Sheriff Pierce said he is grateful for the added resource Wayne Pregnancy Center and growing numbers of other groups are providing, since jails often wind up being a financial drain on a community.

It is compounded by recidivism, especially when the underlying cause goes beyond the charges.

“We have so many people in our detention center who have nowhere else to be,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not a criminal situation as much as it’s something that they need rehab for, and sometimes they wind up in our facility.”

Having those come on board who specialize in treatment and rehabilitation has been a tremendous help for the detention center, Pierce said.

“I did allow that program to be brought into our jail,” he said. “That was the easy part — they’re doing the hard part of helping these people.”

Thaxton echoed similar sentiments, praising the work that Weeks, Chavous and their counterparts provide.

Weeks said the credit also goes to Pierce and Thaxton for not only approving the group coming into the jail but also providing the mentoring and training on how law enforcement works.

“You can’t get the harvest unless you have a field, and you can’t get the harvest out of the field until you start planting,” Chavous said. “The sheriff’s department set the groundwork to plow the field, and they went in and made a way so that this could happen.”

Thaxton said his hope is that word might spread, so others in law enforcement benefit from such supportive efforts.

“I’m not saying that other jails are not doing something similar but you know, as a general rule, most jails are fighting overcrowded populations,” he said. “They’re doing all they can just to keep the peace. It’s really a time constraint. They really don’t want to bring other people in. They don’t have the manpower or the people to support it.”

The majority of community jails battle a problem with overcrowding and Wayne County’s annex detention center has allowed for many of the inmates from Wayne County to be returned to be housed here. But the need for mental health services has compounded the problem, and the added burden of what jails are tasked with providing or not.

“I want to break the perception that (we’re) just a jail, just a holding place,” Thaxton said. “This is a temporary solution to the problems we’re encountering on the streets.

“You’ve got to break the cycle.”