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Utah Co. jail has largest jail industries program nationwide, providing jobs and hope for inmates

Posted at 9:24 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 23:24:26-04

SPANISH FORK, Utah — Walking into Wasatch County Window Wells factory in Lindon, UT people immediately hear the loud sounds of machinery, welding, steaming and more. As people look around, they see dozens of men working in the factory. No one would know there are three plain clothed inmates from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office working as well.

Skyler Shumway, Jedediah Coomes and Erik Amundsen are all incarcerated and working at Wasatch Window Well Covers.

“It has given me the opportunity to change my life around and have money and be able to be successful when I get out,” Shumway said.

During more than two decades, almost 10-thousand inmates have participated in the Utah County Sheriff’s Office Jail Industries (JI) program. The program allows for selected inmates to hold paid jobs in the community during their time in jail. While recidivism rates in Utah continue to remain high, programs like this are helping lower people’s chances of becoming repeat offenders, Sgt. Chris Sainsbury said.

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Studies suggest that poverty is one of the strongest predictors of recidivism.

Other studies show that people who are employed after being incarcerated are less likely to re-offend and those released during bad economic times have a higher change of returning to the system. times

Formerly incarcerated individuals face unemployment rates over 27 percent, the Prison Policy reports.

About 70 percent of the inmates who work at local businesses through the program are offered jobs when they are released, according to data from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. Inmates who go through the program are also less likely to re-offend Sgt. Sainsbury said.

“When they get out, they are far less desperate than if they had not had that opportunity and when their desperation level goes up, their chances of doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do like returning back to drugs or their old friends increase,” he said.

Inmates either work at a local business or in the jail garden, greenhouse, the leash on life program or another onsite project. There is strict criteria for inmates to be considered for the program, including having low level offenses and good behavior.

The inmates can keep 20 percent of their wages, the rest goes back to the program, victim funds and taxes. The inmates are also housed in a separate building with bunk-bed style dorms and more freedom.

When you are in jail for an extended amount of time you lose your job, your house and usually a chance at making income, Coomes said. Being able to likely have a job after being released and be released with a plan is very comforting, he said.

“I will have a chunk of money that I am released with that can help get me into a place, get my license back, things like that,” Coomes said.

Employers, like the general manager for Wasatch Window Well Covers, say they are thrilled with the work from the reliable, hard-working employees. The inmates are bussed to their jobs each morning and back to their JI cells each night.

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“It is a pretty unique opportunity to create opportunities for other people and that is pretty fulfilling to us,” Ryli Sutch said, adding he would hire any of the three inmate workers he has right now in a ‘heartbeat.’

Not only does the opportunity offer the chance to learn new skills, but it also helps with inmates’ mental health, Amundsen said.

“Coming out here to work during the day all week is such a mental boost,” he said.

The largest limitation to the program is many of these inmates do become re-offenders after being released, Sgt. Sainsbury said. Many of the inmates also struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. While those who participate in the JI program are less likely than other inmates to end up back in the criminal justice system, still too many do, Sgt. Sainsbury said.

Within the last year, those overseeing the program have implemented several new ways to help lower recidivism rates.

A study by the Utah Department of Human services stated with regular mental health or substance abuse counseling, offenders are more than 30 percent less likely to re-offend.

“Now, we are trying to do additional work like in our jail kitchen, we are trying to provide them with substance abuse counseling through our RISE program that we have here on site. We are trying to do what we can to help them transition and given them a better opportunity after their release,” he said.

Inmates are also offered therapy, and assistance after they are released with housing and transportation. It is still too early to know exactly the impacts the new additions to the program will have, yet Sgt. Sainsbury said they are already seeing success.

For more information on the jail industries program, click here.