For decades the rate of recidivism among the jail population nationwide has been a constant. Estimates are between 80 to 90 percent of jail inmates usually end up going back behind bars after their release.
But, Hardeman County Correction Center Warden Michael Donahue has begun a program of education and life enrichment he hopes will make a difference in those numbers. The warden challenges his inmates to put him out of business.
"Knowing that 98 percent of the offenders that are going to eventually go back into our community, then I want to provide them with the tools necessary," Warden Donahue sad. "So that they don't come back. I don't want them back."
Prisons. The barred warehouses where society's presumed lost souls are stacked and numbered. But, at the Corrections Corporation of America Hardeman County Correctional Center inmates know using their time wisely inside the facility's walls is of the essence.
"I use the analogy as you picture yourself as this situation is a barrel of dirty water into which you have been tossed into," said Mr. Perkins, an academic instructor at the county prison. "You have the choice of whether you going to rise to the top or sink to the bottom."
"Academic education, substance abuse classes, anger management classes, whatever type of program that I can take that's going to better me, I'm stepping forward and taking initiative," said Cortez Walker, inmate.
When he retired after a 23-year career in corrections, Warden Donahue could have gladly walked away from an institutional system that yields few success stories of prison inmate rehabilitation. But, when accepted a position as warden of Hardeman County Correctional Center in Whiteville in 2012, he saw an opportunity to pursue a mission based on his years of observing the societal effects the penal system and its insidious cycle of recidivism creates.
Look at it this way, if you want a better mousetrap, you've got to learn to build a better mousetrap.
"If they don't have an education, I'm going to give them an education," Warden Donahue said. "If they have medical or mental health issues, I'm going to address those. If you leave here better than when you came, then the public safety is served because recidivism goes down and if recidivism goes down there are less victims out there."
If it takes a village to raise a child, imagine the work it takes for the correctional center's 18 fulltime teachers and volunteers to provide the educational and vocational training to refocus the lives of men who at an early age were told, in many cases by their own families, they'd amount to nothing.
"If you have no expectations of a student, very rarely are they going to meet any expectations," said Jo Mahan, correctional center instructor.
"When you come in here with that attitude that you're going to 'fake it to make it,' you're only hurting yourself," Mr. Perkins said.
"The teachers, the educators, the volunteers, they change minds," Warden Donahue said. "They change attitudes. They change hearts and because they do that they change behaviors."
"Some of them probably didn't even think about that they were going to have a high school diploma in their lives," said Tommy Corman, HCCCC addiction counselor. "I've been in some areas where I've had inmates tell me that I'm the first one in my family to have a high school diploma."
"It's a pretty good feeling. It gives you a sense of pride to know that you can do something that's not negative as a means of providing for those that you may or may not care about," said inmate David Cross. "Just the individuals that's in your life."
"We teach them a belief system," said one of the correctional center's alcohol drug counselors. "The rational thinking, why they're living out these types of perspectives they have on the world. So, they're not deemed to repeat it."
"If they know that it's coming from your heart and you're dedicated and you're focused, and you have expectations of them, then they appreciate that," Mahan said.
Building expectations in men who once thought they had none. It's why Warden Donahue came back. But he wouldn't mind being sent on a permanent vacation.
"My job and I challenge all of them," he said. "Put me out of business! I challenge you to put me out of business! I don't want to be in business! I'll be happy to retire again!