By Danielle Brown, Roane County Executive’s Administrative Assistant of Communications
We have all made those decisions, a few steps too far in the wrong direction. For some, those decisions resulted in debt, a lost job, a lower grade, or ended a relationship. Others gave up their freedom. Regardless, yesterday has been spent, and today we reap our investment. We can choose to learn and evolve or do more of the same. Hindsight can redirect many paths, but what of the men and women whose mistakes cost their freedom?
A few years ago, the opiate epidemic flooded our jails with people who made a few wrong choices. Agencies worked overtime, and over budget towards solutions, we have yet to find. We lost sons and daughters, and the jails began accumulating a population of citizens freshly branded with a scarlet “F” for felony. Their full potential, forever limited by a checkbox found on nearly every job application. Long after their official sentence has ended, there will be a gap in their resume and a felony that must be explained. Even for those with the best intentions, choosing daily redemption will be that much more difficult. A statewide study of recidivism from 2010, by the Vera Institute of Justice, found that 46 percent of prisoners released in Tennessee were reincarcerated within three years. A costly cycle for the imprisoned and the society that pays for the prison.
Sheriff Jack Stockton, never one to accept the unacceptable, directed Deputy Robert Sparkes to combine his 20 years of contracting experience with his seven years of law enforcement to train a few prisoners in what is now called the Vocational Training Program or VTP. Sparkes took a few well-behaved prisoners to the Sheriff’s Training Facility and got to work. The prisoners, tired of serving their sentence in windowless rooms, were eager for a chance to do something more active, not to mention eating home-cooked meals. The improvements have continued to this day. Now, counties and the FBI travel from all around to use the facility.
Since then, Sparkes has mentored a revolving team of prisoners by building community docks, painting walls, refurbishing county landmarks, all the while instilling skills that can’t be taught in a traditional classroom. Mrs. Whitney Moore, Midway High School science teacher, witnessed this firsthand when the Vocational Training Program inmates installed the new greenhouse for Midway High School. “It was just as much of an outdoor classroom for many of the inmates,” Moore said. She saw that Sparkes does more than “work with them to teach them how to do different things with concrete, electrical and construction work. ”He also empowers them to work as a team. “There were guys on site that had some previous knowledge, and it was neat to see those guys work alongside Sparks to teach the other inmates,” she said.
So much of recidivism can be attributed to the social stigma of being convicted, the lack of basic needs due to unemployment and zero to few community ties. Not only do participants of the program gain valuable trade skills, but they also develop relationships with community leaders such as Joe Eskridge, president of the Roane County NAACP, and Stacey Vance Whittenberg, director of the Roane County Animal Shelter.
When the NAACP meeting hall flooded, they knew who to call. “Had it not been for the inmates, the Roane County NAACP Meeting Hall would not look as good or be as useful. They were a godsend,” he said. Eskridge knows the men by name, and they all greet him with warmth. He is still in touch with some of the program’s alumni and continues to work with one former prisoner to help with maintenance.
The prisoners unanimously agreed that the animal shelter was their favorite place to work because they get time with the animals. Paying it forward, the NAACP donated their old sound system to the animal shelter. Now, thanks to the Vocational Training Program and in part to the NAACP, the animal shelter’s roof has been repaired and extended, the walls are freshly painted, the dogs are walked, and the staff bobs their head to music while they work. “I don’t know the words to explain what a blessing they have been to the animal shelter. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to help make things better. It changes the lives of the animals and the prisoners,” Whittenberg said.
One alumni of the program graduated with a new best friend by his side. As a part of his rehabilitation, he picked a dog from the shelter and named him Jip. Every time the men worked, Jip was there raising everyone’s spirits. The inmate even received special permission to take Jip out on weekends. This man’s family are ecstatic to have him home and have welcomed Jip to the family. Thanks to Jip and the rest of his family, this man has a reason to be responsible, a reason to stay out jail. Miss Maggie May, a new pup, has joined the team and will be loved and adored by every trainee by day, and at Maggie’s forever home with Deputy Sparkes by night.
Sheriff Stockton’s choice to begin this program began a series of reactions that have echoed through the jailhouse halls, into our local schools, non-profits, government organizations, churches, and out to local businesses inspired to invest in our county. The community’s involvement has allowed the program to run for three years with no budget. A few men chose to pay their debt to society working, rather than sitting and waiting for their sentence to end. In return, they gain skills, make connections in the community, find and inspire hope. Hope that can be seen in the army of volunteers that cooks for the program trainees and in the Kingston United Methodist Clothes Closet, who keeps the men warm with donated shoes, jackets and more. Not to mention, Scandlyn Lumber, Rogers Group, Twin K Concrete, and Rockwood’s Roger Daniels Trucking are just a few companies that have donated goods and services.
These particular actions have not only saved our community countless thousands in manpower hours, and in repurposed and donated goods, but it also invests in our county’s most valuable resource, its residents. Instead of taking men into a system and spitting them out worse off, we are sending out a higher functioning citizen; A new man with new skills, connections, confidence, and a better chance in life.