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Bringing hope to corrections personnel and inmates

The IGNITE program aims to help inmates make changes in their lives intentionally through education


The Grayson County Sheriff’s Office recently launched a program to help reduce recidivism. From left to right: Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt, Scott Wisenbaker, Detention Captain Sarah Bigham and Chief Deputy Tony Bennie.

By Scott Wisenbaker

I do not know many people who look at our detention facilities and see hope. When considering a career path with meaning and fulfillment, many do not consider a path involving corrections. Jail equals punishment and punishment equals jail. At least, this is the view of the majority of men and women outside, and sometimes inside, the field of corrections. It’s what the media shows us.

How can hope infiltrate and survive this alternate reality? How can someone on a spree who has been arrested time and time again find the hope and courage to change shortly after another arrest? It is easier than most would think.

The courage to change

You may already be asking about my choice of the word “courage,” for what kind of courage does it take to not break the law? Well, in reality, it takes a lot. But you’ll have to momentarily suspend belief and consider an alternate point of view.

If drugs and/or alcohol are someone’s greatest coping mechanism, then the thought of taking it away can be downright terrifying. I am not necessarily talking about the individual who has experienced their first drunken brawl or possession charge. I am talking about anyone with a full-blown addiction, whether they are ready to admit the dependency or not. If this is the only way I am able to cope with the daily struggle of life and you take it away from me, how am I to survive?

We, the addicted, arrive at the point where deep down inside we know that we cannot continue life using and we cannot imagine life without our sole and powerful coping tool. We can become so disenchanted that we start to believe that everyone around us, especially our own children, would be better off if we just removed ourselves from the equation. This is a complete and total void of hope. It’s not really obvious while we’re in jail because while incarcerated our needs are met. It happens out in the community; it happens in the free world where responsibility and stress squarely confront us. It takes courage to abandon our lifeline and really look at ourselves and attempt to change. Again, the thought of never again having our most powerful coping mechanism is terrifying and takes an absolute courage we didn’t know we possessed.

While detained, for any length of time, we pass the time however we can. Telling stories, comparing notes and talking about what we are going to do the moment we are free. The ideas we derive never paralleled the reality of our situation or our actual abilities to make good.

In my work over the past two decades, I have visited many jails. Sometimes the long cold concrete hall leads to a place where hope does not survive. From staff to inmate, there is nothing noteworthy or meaningful, it is a total void of hope for both.

How can hope and meaning be introduced and how can it thrive?

Igniting change

A movement started by Sheriff Swanson in Genesee County, Michigan has been adopted and made available to any and every county willing to participate. This movement known as (IGNITE (Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education), spearheaded by the National Sheriff’s Association, is taking root. My organization, Solutions of North Texas, has become a part of this movement but also provides stand-alone services in some counties.

I want to share what happened yesterday in one such county: Grayson County, Texas. I approached Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt a few months ago and he was quick to try something new to help the men and women in his detention facility. Not help them avoid taking responsibility but rather, helping them make changes in their lives so they never have to return. Knowing that a neighboring sheriff in Collin County, Sheriff Skinner, had made the same choice, he was eager to take this step.

A month has passed since we launched the program. Each day the participant watches a one-hour lesson, immediately followed by a one-hour live group discussion about what they have just seen and how it affects their lives. Populations usually divided by ethnicity, religion and ideology sit together engaging in meaningful conversation. The discussion led by my staff remotely through video conferencing is every bit as important and impactful as the lesson.

Seeing change in action

We were afforded the opportunity to go inside the jail and have the group discussion in person. Accompanying me was my facilitator, retired Lieutenant Eavenson, and my partner in this endeavor, Captain Davis. As we walked down the corridor nearing the classroom where the participants were, I could hear the music I selected as the outro to play at the end of each lesson. What I didn’t expect was the sound of all the women singing along to the song I selected that my band wrote and produced. Every musician, which was my former career, will tell you that when you hear strangers singing your song, it sends a chill down your spine. As we turned the corner and they saw us, excitement and cheer filled the room. Dancing in place they sang louder, and the guard looked up to us and said, “This is their jam.”

Over the next hour we spoke and they asked questions just as they would during any group discussion. But this day was special. This day we saw the profound effect of this program on staff and participants. Some thanked us and shed tears while others said they have never had someone explain how they can live successfully outside of jail and never return. It is important to understand that this jail, although staffed by many caring professionals, has never had programming available to their inmates. In the past month, they only experienced behavioral issues from one participant, all of the others have become model inmates. As much as I would like credit for developing what I believe to be the best addiction and re-entry program available, what has really happened is we have given these women hope for a different life.

The program is every weekday for 12 weeks and requires a high level of participation. I understood that many would sign up because they were hoping for a better outcome in court. What I didn’t realize was that some who have already signed for time were participating knowing they would catch a chain prior to completion. They are doing it to get as much hope as possible before starting their sentence in prison. And they’re also hoping to complete our free-world version upon release. Captain Davis and I were on hand a month earlier at launch and the participants were grateful, but this was different. Their eyes were full of life, and they were experiencing something new.

We walked out of the jail on fire returning two hours later to do the same with the men’s class. Again, we turned the corner, and the room was electrified. Many of the male participants had also signed for time and entered the program for the same reasons. Watching the total elimination of barriers between race and religion as these men spoke was nothing short of a miracle. We wanted to make sure they were aware that it was because of their Sheriff and command staff that they had this extraordinary opportunity. At one point, Captain Davis explained that he has over 26 years of experience in drug enforcement and took part in many federal drug task forces. He further explained that everyone in drug enforcement came to realize they could not arrest their way out of the problem, and they all wanted to see them survive their addiction and thrive at life. The hour passed like minutes.

At the conclusion of each class, both men and women lined up to shake our hands and thank us for caring enough about them to show up. Even though Captain Davis has always been on the enforcement side of arrests, many of the men hugged him as they thanked him. Now, early in my career, I was often accused by law enforcement and corrections of running a “Hug-A-Thug” program until they understood that everything I taught was based on accountability and taking responsibility for their actions. We may manipulate others for a desired effect, but the ONLY thing was can control is our own behaviors. Today, I, the super drug offender, saw the super drug cop hugged by a variety of men covered in tattoos possessing long criminal drug histories. In all his career something like this had never happened and he looked a little shocked by it all. In all my career I have never actually run a Hug-A-Thug program, but the tables have turned and the one that engaged in the hugs was the super drug cop. Not the recovered addict with the program.

If you have not smiled many times throughout this article, I would be surprised. I have been afforded many spectacular moments and opportunities that you might think someone with 42 arrests would never experience. Many times, when I have broken a barrier, my own father has asked me, “Don’t they know who you are?” I always smile and say, “Yes Dad, that’s the whole point.” We can change and I am just the messenger. My message carries no weight without people like Captain Davis. Without people like you.

Without law and order and left to our own devices, we fail. Without hope, we continue on the same path until we die.

My greatest hope is that you too can experience what we did yesterday. Selfishly, I want to be there to see it happen for you and your staff.

About the author

Scott Wisenbaker is executive director at Solutions of North Texas, a provider of substance abuse treatment services based in Denton, Texas.