BEAUFORT — A group of 10 men in orange jumpsuits sits around a conference table in a high-ceilinged room off the main concourse of the county jail, poring over Bible verses and talking quietly amongst themselves.
The men, prisoners in the county jail, are led by three employees from Hope Mission, a Morehead City-based nonprofit that assists those struggling with homelessness and substance abuse issues. The group meets every Friday for a mentorship program during which they participate in a variety of activities, from Bible study to Alcoholics Anonymous-style meetings. A similar group for women meets directly after the men finish up.
“We’re investing in those individuals that come in there,” said Gene McLendon, director of Hope Mission. “We meet with them, hear their stories, finding how we can help them not only while they’re here, but we can help them once they’re released, whether they come to us or they don’t come to us.”
The mentorship program is one of the ways the county is working to rehabilitate prisoners and, in effect, ease overcrowding in the county jail. Though Hope Mission is not a county-affiliated entity, it works closely with the Carteret County Sheriff’s Office and the court system to help prisoners during and after their jail sentences, with the goal of keeping people from committing further crimes and instead integrating them back into society.
Jail overcrowding is a major issue for the county’s facility and others throughout the state, according to Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck. The jail in Beaufort can hold up to 116 inmates, but the total population almost always exceeds that, sometimes reaching 200 inmates in the jail at a given time.
When the jail can’t hold all its prisoners, some get sent to other county jails, on Carteret County’s dime. Sheriff Buck said it costs the county $50 per prisoner per day to house inmates in other facilities, plus transportation costs and all the prisoner’s associated expenses while they are in another facility. Since many nearby counties are struggling with the same jail overpopulation issues, some inmates end up in facilities hours away.
“(It) is becoming increasingly difficult for us to find those beds because other jails are having the same problem that we are,” Sheriff Buck said.
The county has conducted a jail study and is looking at expanding the facility, but that project is still several years away from coming to fruition.
Another initiative aimed at easing jail overpopulation is a pre-trial release program that allows some offenders to wait out the time between arrest and adjudication from the comfort of home rather than in a jail cell. The county can keep track of those individuals through an electronic monitoring program, which Sheriff Buck said has existed for more than 10 years.
“It’s a multi-faceted, multi-purpose program,” he said. “It does help us to reduce the jail population, but it also helps us to help people get their lives back on track.”
The CCSO works closely with the court system and District Attorney Scott Thomas to identify individuals for the pre-trial release program. Sheriff Buck said those who qualify usually have committed misdemeanors or low-level felonies, though individuals are chosen on a case-by-case basis. Violent criminals and those with high-level felonies generally do not qualify.
“It’s not strictly based on someone’s charges,” Sheriff Buck said. “We have to make determinations based on the individual, their previous criminal record, what type of support systems they have in the community, family support, mental health and substance use issues.”
While the electronic monitoring program has been around for a while, not many people know it exists, and Sheriff Buck is looking to expand it in the coming years. For most of its existence, there was only one sheriff’s deputy in charge of overseeing the electronic monitoring program, but county commissioners included funds for a second deputy in this fiscal year’s budget, and Sheriff Buck hopes to continue investing in the program.
The county’s electronic monitoring program also identifies individuals on probation who can be sent to treatment facilities and rehabilitation programs for substance abuse and mental health problems. Some end up at Hope Mission for an intensive, six-month residential program in which they receive counseling and gain skills to enter back into society. Others go to inpatient or outpatient facilities throughout the region.
Many people in the judicial system struggle with addiction, so curbing substance abuse and getting people into recovery is a major way to prevent criminals from reoffending and help them become productive members of society, according to Sheriff Buck. Though the county has not tracked recidivism rates, he said, anecdotally, the programs seem to help cut down on repeat offenders.
“A lot of people who go through these programs, they don’t come back to jail,” he said. “Were it not for this intervention in their lives, they might end up here again.
“It’s hard for folks to break that cycle and find the help on their own.”
Sheriff Buck said crime is complex issue and no single entity can tackle it alone. But with the help of the county’s various rehabilitation initiatives and strong partnerships with organizations like Hope Mission, he hopes they are making a difference in people’s lives.
“We’re helping people to get their lives back on track, we’re helping to reduce future crime and recidivism, we’re reducing the burden to the taxpayer to provide law enforcement services and jail services,” he said. “It’s just a win-win all the way around.”
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.