What began as a wish on Johnson County Sheriff Adam King’s part to develop productive activities for Johnson County Jail inmates soon grew into an abundance of opportunity with more to come.

From a fiscal point of view, the programs fund themselves without reliance on taxpayer dollars. For participating inmates they offer a possible fresh start and, King and others hope, stepping stones toward a more positive way of life.

Devising worthwhile ways for inmates to spend their time is important in the best of times, King reasons, but even more so in the age of COVID-19, which has left many inmates housed at the jail longer than they otherwise would have been.

“Mainly they’re playing checkers and watching TV,” King said of a normal inmate’s day. “Just pretty much nothing. These programs are going to give them something productive to do and hopefully build some character along the way.”

Participation in the programs is voluntary but inmates so far have expressed enthusiasm, King and Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Captain David Blankenship said.

King tackled the educational aspect last year to get the ball rolling by asking county commissioners to approve an extension of the county’s contract with Global Tel*Link, the company that provides inmate telephone service, a service especially important now given that in-person visits from family and friends — attorney visits are still allowed — have been suspended out of COVID-19 spread precautions.

Under the extension, Global Tel*Link agreed to provide tablets, similar to iPads, capable of video telephone calls, email transmission and other services including GED prep and other classes and programs.

Anyone envisioning inmates whiling their days away on Facebook or YouTube need not fear.

“They’ll never have access to the internet on these, regular email or anything like that,” King said. “They won’t have access to games, music or any kind of entertainment. We still want this to be jail. These are set up where they’re not like civilian iPads.”

Inmates may, however, engage in video teleconferencing with family and friends and send messages via a specialized email program.

“Not just calling or sending messages to anybody,” King said. “These will be messages and calls only to people who have approved being contacted by them. So, they’re not going to be able to contact victims or just random people. We also with these have the ability to monitor everything they do in real time and after the fact.”

Blankenship displayed one of the pads, which just arrived last week, to demonstrate its sturdiness.

“The pads can be taken to their area for certain things,” Blankenship said. “But they won’t work for video calls unless they’re docked on one of the stations we’ve had installed in public areas. So they can’t go off by themselves and make a call. The pads are also not mounted flat but pointed up slightly so that all the person will see during the call is the inmate’s face.”

Some pads will likely get torn up, King and Blankenship admitted, but probably not too many.

“I’m sure someone will probably get mad and bang on them,” King said. “But the thing is, the other inmates aren’t going to be too happy about that because those are how they’re going to get to talk to their family and get their emails. And, anyone who does tear one up will get charged with destruction of property.”

Keeping track should be fairly simple, Blankenship added, as inmates have to input a personal code before the tablets can be used.

The pads also eliminate problems associated with snail mail, King said.

“One of the other things Global Tel*Link has agreed to do is our regular mail that inmates receive,” King said. “They’ll scan it and then the inmates can read it on the pad and that way they’ll never touch the actual letter. The reason that’s important is we’ve had instances of people dipping letters in drugs, K-2 mostly but other things too and so we want that paper out of our jail. The only ones that won’t get scanned are legal letters from their attorneys.”

More exciting for King and his staff are the GED prep programs as well as life skills and self-help programs such as anger management and others offered on the tablets.

“I wanted to try to get a GED program in here,” King said. “We looked at the costs of bringing instructors in and the more traditional method but the costs were just astronomical. So I had to figure out a way to do that with no funding from taxpayers and basically no money.”

Global Tel*Link agreed to provide such programs on the tablets.

Charges attached to each video call and email will pay for the tablets and the associated programs.

Inmates through the pads may also read approved books and gain access to law library materials.

“The law library access is something we have to provide by law,” King said. “Especially to those inmates representing themselves. Previously we could send them to the jail in Waco, which was run by LaSalle, which also oversees our jail operations. LaSalle isn’t over that jail anymore so that was a problem that this solves for us. We looked at the cost of putting a law library in the jail but again, the costs were astronomical.”

A degree of learning

Many are in the jail for only a short time normally, in many cases while awaiting their court case or, if sentenced, to be shipped to a state prison or other facility. Those found guilty of misdemeanors and sentenced to a year or less often serve their time in Johnson County as well. Those stays have been stretched out for now, however, since jury trials remain on hold because of COVID-19.

“So, I wanted to provide some kind of GED and vocational training opportunities so that when they get out they hopefully find a job or continue their education and don’t come back to jail,” King said. “I don’t have exact numbers but wouldn’t be surprised if the majority in here don’t have a high school diploma or a GED.”

King admits that many will be released, or transferred elsewhere, before they can complete a GED or vocational program but also helps it may serve as inspiration for them to finish what they started. 

“If we can get two, three, four classes for them and they begin to understand they can do this, it’s within their ability then once they get out they might continue it,” King said. 

An educational group, Opportunity Resource Services, which operates on a grant, have agreed to function as guidance counselors per se.

They will help inmates approaching release with continuing education opportunities as well as the paperwork and steps to make that happen. Steps King characterizes as the off ramp to continued success. 

King said he realized early on, however, that motivation was needed to interest inmates in the GED and other programs to begin with.

“I realized we could hand them the pads and most of them won’t do much with them if we don’t give them an on ramp,” King said. “No all but many lack the character skills, work ethic, focus and motivation to this. And these are self-paced, self-administered programs. I can’t do it for them. They have to do 99.9 percent of it themselves and they have to want to do it if they’re going to succeed at it.”

beans and bees

Patches of empty land fenced but otherwise too small for use as rec yard areas or much else dot the jail, as does a larger, also fenced, parcel of county-owned land of five or so acres on the north end of the facility. 

King envisioned gardens in the patches and contacted Johnson County Extension Agent for Agricultural and Natural Resources Justin Hale.

“The funny thing was, a few days before Sheriff King called me I’d read a news article where the Collin County Sheriff’s Office is using a prison garden program as a rehab tool,” Hale said. “I thought that’s crazy how the stars align with the sheriff calling me to talk about getting one started here right after I saw that article and thought that’s a sign of a higher power for sure.”

Hale, King and Blankenship paid a visit to Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner to get the skinny on his program.

“It’s unbelievable,” King said. “They’re cultivating like 20 acres out there, just a huge set up. Their set up is a little different than what we’re doing but I asked the sheriff what his recidivism rate is for people who go through the program and he said zero. Said he’s never had anybody come back that’s gone through the program. Ever.”

Skinner also sold King on a program he wasn’t initially crazy about.

“He does beekeeping,” King said. “I wasn’t big on that because I’m scared of bees. They sting. But Sheriff Skinner told me that the garden program is good but the inmates respond best to beekeeping. They love it. Basically it teaches them how to nurture something. It’s kind of strange [Skinner] said but they get connected to those bees and their wellbeing. Some of these people have never been taught how to nurture anything. So it’s crazy that a box of bees might be able to give that nurturing spirit and character traits that some of these people need.

Honey and crops harvested will go to the kitchen to offset the cost of feeding inmates, with anything extra sent to charitable organizations. 

King joked that crops from the larger parcel could “dang near feed the jail”

“But that’s just a side benefit,” King said. “But the main thing is we’re using agriculture and beekeeping as a means to teach the character skills they need to succeed. And we’re not reinventing anything new here. We’re going basically off the 4-H principles just replacing the words youth for inmates. 4-H’s belief statement reads: Developing young people who are empowered, confident, hard working, determined, responsible and compassionate seeing a world beyond themselves so that they have the lifelong skills to succeed in college and career.

“And I’ve noticed that kids who come out of 4-H seem to do very well when they get out in the world even those kids who came from very difficult and challenging backgrounds seem to do better than other kids. So, if that can work for kids, why not inmates?

“A lot of people in here have never realized any real accomplishment or seen the results of their work and responsibility so literally that first tomato they grow or jar of honey they collect will be their first major accomplishment. I was already thinking that but that’s what the Collin County sheriff confirmed for me. He said, ‘You can’t imagine what a big deal it was for these inmates when we gave them a little jar of honey and a hot biscuit for them to eat their honey with.’”

Sales from the jail’s commissary fund the gardening and beekeeping programs.

“So there’s no taxpayer cost for these programs either,” King said. “The inmates, through buying toothpaste, candy bars, chips whatever are paying for their own programs. The law says any money we make off the commissary has to be spent for the benefit of the inmates, so that’s what we’re doing.”

Soil testing and prep work have already begun on the garden program and Hale plans to help with some of the classes. Hale added that several local nurseries have donated seeds.

“I have big dreams for this just like Sheriff King does,” Hale said. “I think it’s going to be a great asset and tool to help inmates and help give them purpose.”

Grandview Master Gardeners Jim and Sharon Smith volunteered to oversee the program.

“As long as they enjoy it we’ll be there,” Jim Smith said.

Onions, radishes and turnips have been planted with plans to plant squash, beans, black eyed peas, watermelons and cantaloupes upcoming.

Scott Zirger, founder of the Chisholm Trail Beekeepers, agreed to oversee the beekeeping program.

“We’re starting from the ground up,” Zirger said. “We’ve already measured an area out. I told the sheriff I thought it would be a good idea to have the inmates build the bee hives and paint then. Then we’re going to build stands for the hives. The bees will arrive late April early May. I’m excited and glad we’re doing this. I think it will teach the inmates about the positive aspects of work and responsibility, and they’ll get some honey at the end as a reward.”

Jail Administrator Brian Gordy said saw the benefits of gardening program when he worked at other jail and prison facilities.

“The bee program’s new to me though,” Gordy said. “The inmates are excited and ready to get after it. I’m excited because I want to learn, too.”

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