Case Manager Michelle Perkins teaches moral reconation therapy to Franklin County Jail inmates Monday. The course focuses on a 12-step program designed to teach inmates how to break destructive cycles by changing the way they think and approach life.

The Middle Tennessee Rural Reentry program has developed a work-release platform with a two-fold purpose — to give inmates job opportunities and to simultaneously reduce an unpaid court-fine/delinquent-child-support balance totaling $31 million.

Dave Van Buskirk, a former Franklin County commissioner who now heads the reentry program’s business-development sector, said an agreement has been reached with Thompson Appalachian Hardwoods, a Huntland-based hardwood products manufacturer, to have inmates join the company’s regular employee base through a special work-release program.

The inmates are paid regular wages which they in turn use to pay down court fines they have accrued through their incarceration process, he said.

Van Buskirk said the objective is to pay down those unpaid court fines which total $31 million.

He said most inmates have lost their ability to generate income because of their negative legal track record which has led to the immense amount of unpaid court fines.

Van Buskirk said three inmates have been working for Thompson, and a fourth one is to be added this week.

He said he hopes the work-release program’s scope expands to other companies so that more inmates can be involved in a process that is likely to turn their lives around by allowing them to hold onto jobs and avoid returning to jail.

Van Buskirk said the program’s inmates are transported to Thompson daily and are returned to the jail at the end of each day.

On Fridays, they get paid, and money they earn is used to pay down the debts they have accrued.

Christine Hopkins, the reentry program’s executive director, said the reentry program’s goal is to give inmates opportunities so they don’t continually get released and then later return to incarceration.

She said that 80-85 percent of the inmates who are released normally end up back in jail.

However, she said that with the reentry program, only 30-35 percent make repeat jail appearances.

Van Buskirk and Hopkins agreed many inmates have had negative patterns that have led to their repeat-offense status. They said mental-health programs offered through reentry target those specific areas and reduce the negative behavioral traits that place them back in jail.

While the work-release program is for current inmates, reentry focuses on teaching the necessary skills to keep those who have served their sentences from returning to jail by being gainfully employed.

The nonprofit reentry program asks local employers what kind of workers they need and trains ex-offenders to fill those jobs.

Reentry was conceived by Hopkins who has partnered with Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, a strong believer in rehabilitation.

Hopkins had worked for 50 years in social services and workforce development, helping people with disabilities and mental illnesses find jobs after they had taken job-readiness training.

Her efforts have drawn national attention with coverage about the program appearing in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.

Franklin and surrounding counties have many auto-parts plants, so many of the program’s enrollees train to work in that field while still in jail, gaining certifications in skills such as injection molding and computer-machining fundamentals.

Hopkins said some of the inmates have extremely bright career potential but have made bad decisions that landed them behind bars.

She said inmates’ employment potential surfaces when they detail in writing what they’d like to do positively with the rest of their lives.

Hopkins provided a letter from an inmate only identified by his first name, Samuel, complying with the jail’s privacy regulations.

“I am serving a nine-month sentence, yet I am glad that I am here,” he said. “Why? Because of the Franklin County Reentry Program here in Franklin County.

“With the volatile and dreary conditions of jail, reentry is a nice and welcome reprieve, as well as a multitude of opportunities for an inmate trying to find success in life.”

He pays tribute to Hopkins and the reentry staff that includes Dale Hatcher, Jesse Ayers, James Cantrell, Michelle Perkins, Terri Trial, Van Buskirk and Lisa Pendleton.

“They provide such services as moral reconation therapy, classes in victim impact and job readiness, group and individual counseling, assistance in mental health/substance abuse post-release care, post-release employment assistance, referrals for housing and transportation, GED classes if needed, Bible study, screenings and assessments to discern individual needs for success, as well as a plethora of other opportunities for those eager to find them,” he said.

Samuel explains how MRT allows inmates to recognize their destructive thinking patterns and behavior, understand why they are making such decisions and learn how to create more healthy thinking patterns from scratch that lead to better behavior and the right decisions.

He said that victim impact puts front-and-center all the individuals affected and how they were impacted by various different types of crimes.

“It puts into perspective that the offender not only creates a victim of the defendant, but victimizes the defendant’s family, the criminal justice system, the offender’s own family, as well as the community as a whole,” he said.

Samuel explained how job readiness involves such tools as how to research a job, how to correctly fill out an application, how to properly conduct oneself in an interview as well as how to handle and keep a job, even when stressful or triggering events unfold at the work place.

He said that several informative classes are taught by the local Health Department.

Samuel referred to parenting classes, usually led by a partnership with the Campora Family Resource Center, and how it puts the responsibility in the parents’ hands.

“It informs inmates of how their actions set an example for their children, deprive their children of their much-needed presence in the household, as well as how to be an effective teacher and proud example for their children,” he said.

Group/individual counseling is pretty self-explanatory, “yet remarkably profound,” Samuel said.

“It allows us inmates to, instead of learning more criminal activity, learn from each other’s mistakes and poor decisions in life, as well as get suggestions for our own,” he said. “Individual counseling allows inmates to discuss more personal or painful aspects of their lives, to work through them, learn to accept those harsh memories, and start to move on from the past and focus on what is left for you to control: (the future ahead of you).”

Samuel said the program has provided him with a key ingredient to succeeding on the outside — confidence.

He explained that he no longer feels like “a loser destined to be a loser all of my life. Confidence that I can indeed climb out of this hole I have dug for myself. Confidence that I am a valuable member of society, not a scourge.”