WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Washington County Tennessee Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) announced a new three-year, $1 million grant Tuesday morning to provide support for inmates as they struggle with mental health and enter the workforce after incarceration.

Sheriff Keith Sexton said a great number of the inmates in the Washington County Detention Center suffer from mental illness and others suffer from addiction. In an effort to offer aid to those and to combat local recidivism, the sheriff’s office partnered with Families Free and applied for a grant.

“We also saw a need to get inmates who are skilled,” Sexton said. “There’s a shortage in the workforce so we wanted to create a program where inmates can start into our work-release program, and the only way that they’re gonna get out into the workforce and not re-offend is something has to happen that changes things.”

Sexton said Families Free has a proven track record for helping inmates do just that. The goal is that inmates will have spent significant amounts of time in the work-release program prior to release. During that time, inmates who have applied and been accepted into the program will earn a salary.

“That salary comes back to a fund that, one, will funnel off to child support first, fines and costs second, and then they will be able to bank the rest,” Sexton said. “So that when they leave here, hopefully in the best case scenario, they will get caught up on their child support, fines and costs are paid off – or at least they have an avenue to be paying those off – and they have some money in their pocket so once they leave this jail, they can start life.”

Lisa Tipton, the Executive Director of Families Free, said the non-profit facility is licensed to treat substance abuse and mental health disorders. The organization’s largest office is in Johnson City, where they also provide housing to women and children, most of whom have been involved in the criminal justice system.

“We have been working for about 14 years with individuals who are incarcerated,” Tipton said. “We started working with incarcerated women about 14 years ago, and we are so grateful for the opportunity this is gonna bring so many people in our community.”

Tipton said jail sentences affect more than just the actual inmates.

“It’s the children that are on the outside, the family members on the outside, grandparents on the outside,” Tipton said. “And we’re just so happy to be able to come alongside Sheriff Sexton and his vision for people to be made whole.”

According to Tipton, the WCSO’s grant for the program is administered by the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs (OCJP). She said similar grants have been awarded in Johnson and Sullivan counties.

Melody Castle Kestner, the re-entry manager for Families Free, said all classes in the program that inmates sign up for are evidence-based. Classes consist of 12 inmates and are gender-specific.

“We run through 12 weeks, the majority of the classes are 12 weeks, curriculums,” Castle Kestner said. “Just really getting to know them better, building that rapport with them, giving them that hope that it doesn’t have to end here. The biggest thing is while we’re doing that, there’s a re-entry aspect of the whole entire grant which allows them to have resources to the outside.”

According to the WCSO, the programs include the following:

  • Moral Reconation Therapy – a systematic treatment strategy to increase moral reasoning.
  • Seeking Safety – a counseling model to help people attain safety from trauma and/or substance abuse.
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy – a form of psychological treatment that is effective for a range of problems, including severe mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse problems
  • Nurturing Parenting – assists in family reunification and addressing the needs of parents and children such as improving living situations, employment and education.

Castle Kestner said inmates in the program will be able to communicate with specialists who will work with them on things like housing after incarceration, coping and generational trauma.

The evidence-based courses in the program will run concurrently for men and women, offering help and support for mental health.

Sexton said there is a common thread among inmates in the community, with several repeat offenders and relatives who have gone down similar paths.

“That’s the thing about programs like this,” Sexton said. “You can put someone in jail, and they’re gonna get ‘clean and sober,’ but they never become whole. They never see anything other than the system they grew up in, the way things are through their family, and when they get out – I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen inmates stand outside that jail when they’re released. You talk to them, you say ‘where are you going?’ They say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t have nowhere to go, I don’t have any money in my pocket, I don’t have a job.'”

Sexton said he spoke with local business owners who needed more employees, many of whom expressed interest in working with a workforce program and hiring former inmates.

According to Sexton, to participate in the program, inmates do have to meet certain eligibility requirements. Not all of those requirements have been determined as of Tuesday, but Sexton said he hopes to include more inmates than in typical workforce programs.

The workforce program is entirely funded by the state’s grant, Sexton said, and doesn’t cost Washington County taxpayers anything.

Sexton said when he first began in his role as sheriff, several inmates requested that the WCSO work with Families Free. Since then, he said he has seen a definitive change.

A release from the WCSO states that the office will hire two new officers dedicated to the program, as well as a behavioral health specialist who will join the detention center’s medical staff.

The full press conference can be watched below: