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Most people don’t grow up with aspirations of spending time in the county jail. Despite the drawbacks, however, time at the Cleveland County jail can be a turning point for those who are ready to make a change.
“Our vision to inspire success by transforming one life at a time is often recognized in unexpected ways, said Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson who, by state law, is charged with overseeing the county jail. “We have learned through feedback from inmates that providing opportunities for success along with positive role models inspires them to make changes and break the cycle of crime.”
While there are many programs at the Cleveland County Detention Center designed to provide a path to change, the trustee program also provides needed labor for the Sheriff’s Office, saving valuable taxpayer dollars while also providing training opportunities for inmates.
Trustees are carefully selected and do everything from in-house work such as cooking, grounds keeping and cleaning to providing labor for projects outside the jail.
“Being a trustee for the Cleveland County jail has made my time go by a lot faster and a lot easier,” said Trustee Jacob Cardwell. “I used to think most of the guards didn’t care about me or my wellbeing, but I was wrong. Working and cleaning every day and being around them gave me the chance to get to know them and for them to get to know me.”
During CCSO’s move from the old headquarters building to the new one, trustees partnered with deputies and detectives to move furniture from the old building to the new one.
“Work programs create opportunities for trustees to get to know us as human beings,” said Capt. Ronnie Johnson who supervised trustees during the moving operation. “It also creates a chance for us to get to know the trustees as human beings and to learn what brought them into the criminal justice system. Usually, people aren’t inherently bad, they’ve just made bad decisions.”
Trustees also help with projects at the CCSO Operations building — home to the patrol division — in Slaughterville.
“Being a trustee has been a good experience ‘cause it helps me not be bored in jail. Also, it helps some of my life skills,” said Trustee Steven Silva-Smith. “I love the privilege we got, and the trust CCDC puts in us trustees.”
During their time as trustees, the men work with a lot of different deputies and get to know them as people and positive role models rather than as cops who are arresting them and getting them into trouble. Some trustees have even written letters after their stay in the Cleveland County Detention Center, thanking deputies for being mentors who inspired them to change their lives for the better.
“It makes me responsible and accountable for my actions,” said Trustee Lerome Venable. “It’s built my self-esteem and made me feel more trustworthy. When someone trusts you to make a good and righteous decision, it builds your self-confidence to keep making good and right decisions. It’s brought forth a whole new attitude for me which gives me hope for my future.”
Deputies, detectives, detention officers and other CCSO staff members work to treat trustees the way they would want to be treated and to model healthy work behavior. There is time for talking about taking recovery seriously if they’re headed for Drug Court or the importance of turning their lives around as role models for their children.
Being off drugs and in a controlled environment but with the added trust of working as a trustee allows trustees to begin rebuilding their lives in a positive way and to see law enforcement as people who would rather help them than arrest them.
“I don’t just help the guards,” Caldwell said. “I feel that I help other inmates as well. One of my biggest things is finding drugs while cleaning up front. I turn them in every time, knowing I could be saving someone’s life from overdosing.”
For some, like Steven Burnett it’s a chance to interact with other people in a healthy, positive manner.
“It has bettered me to interact with others positively,” Burnett said.
Healthy interactions can be particularly important if the person had become enmeshed in a criminal or drug culture prior to being arrested. Working alongside a deputy creates a new normal — one that doesn’t include the unhealthy attitudes of some people who were part of their old lives.
“Sometimes all it takes if one person to start something positive and it becomes contagious,” Venable said.