Jail Break 

Pilot program aims to keep released prisoners away from a life of crime.

For many prisoners in Shelby County, jail can be like drugs. Once they've been locked up, it's a hard habit to kick.

About 85 percent of the people processed through the Shelby County Jail are arrested again within three years of their release.

But the county's hoping to reduce those figures through a pilot program projected to begin in December. By providing mandatory incentives to prisoners, such as employment services, addiction counseling, and literacy training, county officials hope to reduce the recidivism rate.

"We're doing a good job of locking people up, but they have a discouraging profile," said Sheriff Mark Lutrell. "The majority of prisoners are young black men, aged 18 to 26. Many aren't above a fifth-grade reading level, and many are illiterate."

Currently, services such as basic education, drug-abuse programs, and anger management are offered, but attendance is voluntary.

The test program will break selected medium-security-level inmates into three groups. The first group will serve as the control group, and though services won't be mandatory, they will be marketed more heavily.

Inmates in the second group will receive a case manager who will assess their individual needs and assign them to applicable services.

"The case manager will even work with inmates post-release to prevent them from reverting back to old behavior," said Sybille Noble, the current project manager.

The third group will mirror the second group, but they will receive additional services in literacy training provided by faculty from the University of Memphis.

"We're hopeful we'll know in a year after release how stable their situation is," said Noble. "If they're working and going to church, that should be able to help us determine if they'll be back [behind bars]."

Test-group members will also have some post-release incentives, such as housing and employment assistance.

"There's a lot of factors [affecting recidivism], but it comes down to the negative environment some of these inmates face after release," said Noble. "Some don't have a good home life. Some don't even have a home life."

The $1.5 million program is part of Operation Safe Community, a countywide initiative to reduce crime by 2010.

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