In downtown Morgantown, KY, below the courthouse on the square, a jail meant to hold only 36 inmates houses over fifty, and numbers continue to grow. In a state with the second highest incarceration growth rate in the country, Butler County Jail is experiencing direct effects of incarceration for addiction.
“Drug offenses are by far the most common here,” said Ricky Romans, Butler County Jailer. “And most of the drug offenses are meth.”
Romans, like nearly all the jail’s employees and inmates, was born and raised in Butler County. As a jailer, he’s seen the numbers rise and the cells fill more frequently because of drug offenses. As a lifetime resident, he’s seen his friends, his classmates, his neighbors come in and out of the jail’s doors.
Tara McMillian, the jail’s Class D Coordinator, has had the same experience. “One of the things I think is so different about this jail than others is that we know most of the people that come through,” said McMillian. “My kids go to school with their kids, so it’s more personal.”
Despite this difference, the two still say the jail has the same small-town atmosphere as the rest of Butler County, and welcomes the same kind of “southern hospitality.”
McMillian thinks that this, above all else, is why the jail’s employees care so deeply about the inmates that come through. Because she has grown up with them in the same community, she believes she has more of an idea of what they need. Which is why, in an effort to break the county’s cycles of addiction and recidivism, McMillian and Romans have focused the jail’s efforts on rehabilitation. The jail offers several programs for inmates who want to start their road to recovery while serving time and better preparing them for re-entry.
“We’re not the judges and the juries--we’re the caretakers,” said Romans. As the county jailer, he says he is not concerned on what people have done to get in the jail, but rather how he can help them once they’re out.
“Our job as far as corrections is concerned is to lock them up. Out of sight out of mind- that’s how a lot of people think,” said Romans. “But a lot of people fall through the cracks in the system. We want to try to offer all we can to help them change their life.”
In his 20th year working in corrections, Romans says he’s well-versed in what inmates need in order to succeed. Often, when he asks inmates of their plans once they’re out, they aren’t sure. “They tell me they don’t have a job, because they don’t know how to fill out a resume, conduct an interview, they don’t hire felons.”
Romans and McMillian took note of all these problems, and have since rotated through dozens of different programs, trying to find the right fit for the jail based on the inmates’ needs. All of the programs currently running in the jail revolve around preparing the inmates for life outside of incarceration, by looking both in the past and the future.
“My desire is to equip these inmates with some tools to have when they do get out to try to break that cycle of recidivism,” said Romans.
Off Your Seat and On Your Feet
The newest program to be instilled at Butler County Jail is a class called “Off Your Seat and On Your Feet.” This class, created by Tara McMillian and taught by Chief Deputy Ralph Spohn, is taught in two parts. The first is an 8am workout in the small recreation area in a corner of the building. Whistle in hand, Ralph guides the inmates through several workout drills until.
“A lot of people that come in here are so hooked on drugs. And locking people up doesn’t always give people the answers they need or the help they need to give them time to dry out,” said Spohn. “So this program really gets them active and motivated to keep working out.”
Once the men have jogged enough circles, Spohn walks them into the jail’s chapel. In this small room, he passes out workbooks filled with different prompts and readings. The men discuss their pasts-things like their bad habits and worst qualities- and then they take turns talking about how to change them.
Some of the men talk about their drug addiction, some about their families, all while Spohn listens, occasionally offering advise on how to make positive changes and reading from the workbook.
This program is taught by Tara McMillian, the jail’s Class D coordinator. The program was created by McMillian with a goal of teaching the inmates life skills in preparation for their re-entry.
“We teach the men how to cook a meal, how to balance a checkbook, how to manage money,” said McMillian.
During the program’s first session, each inmate is asked to give a testimony, explaining in as much detail as they wish why they are serving jail time and what they want to change while they’re serving. “A lot of them just need somebody to believe in them. So thats what I try to do,” said McMillian.
During the sessions, McMillian walks them through different skills, comparing it to a home ec class. One week, it was making a spagetti dinner for the entire jail. The next, writing up resumes, which McMillian spent her off-time typing up and brought printed to the next class. One week, the men did mock job interviews.
At the end of the 12-week course, the inmates attend a graduation ceremony, in which they are asked to write and read a letter to family members and loved ones explaining what they’ve learned in the class and how they’ll use it.
From Survive to Thrive
When McMillian began her search for programs she could offer, she realized that the women in the jail often had different needs than the men. She recognized that these women often lacked any kind f therapeutic outlet, and reached out to Hope Harbor, a nonprofit crisis counseling center in Bowling Green, Ky. for victims of sexual assault.
Together, they began “From Survive to Thrive,” a six-week program set up like a kind of group therapy. Each week, the women sit in a circle, completing activities and discussing traumas in their lives.
The class is often heavy and emotional, so Dr. Linda Gary, a counselor at Hope Harbor, always brings small activities for the women like coloring books and stress balls.
“A lot of these women would not otherwise receive this type of therapy, whether they could not afford it or would not know it was available,” said Dr. Gary.
Because inmates come into the jail at all different times, they start and complete the programs at different rates. Graduation days happen often, and McMillian makes sure each of them is special. Most involve cupcakes or pizza parties, some involve family visits.
On the final day of Life Repossession class, Tony, an inmate at the jail, prepares to read the letter he wrote to loved ones out loud to family members and other classmates before mailing it to his children. Tony is the first inmate in the jail’s history to have graduated from every program offered at the jail.
“I’ve been in and out of prison for the past seventeen years,” said Tony. “I never really stopped and took a look at myself, tried to break the cycle.” But through the jail’s programs, he says he’s finally had that chance.
“If even one out of twenty, or one out of one hundred inmates does not come back, I think this program has been worth it,” said Spohn.
Employees at the jail say they are seeing a positive impact on the community because of the programs. McMillian has former inmates that she taught in classes come up to her all the time, at church or the grocery store, to thank her and update her on their lives.
“I just want them to know that there is someone out there that cares about them, even if they don’t think so,” said McMillian.
“These programs and Tara have really helped open my eyes to the way I was living my life,” said Tony. He is up for probation in mid-May, and hopes to soon be home with his children.
“I’m tired of jail, I’m tired of struggling with addiction and having to leave my kids. I’m ready to be a dad.”