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Program in works with criminal justice officials, mental health services, community groups

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Captain Tony Weaver, left, the Columbia County jail commander, is part of a group developing a new program to provide a warm welcome to people released from the jail.When inmates are released from the Columbia County Jail, their first stop is typically next door for a meeting with their parole officer. But after that, many former inmates are left to their own devices.

With a sudden level of freedom unfamiliar to people who have spent months under the strict supervision and control of incarceration, even the best laid plans can go awry.

"We know that those first 24 hours are the most vulnerable point. You can go one way or the other, and that one choice that you make, that's kind of it sometimes for folks," Columbia Community Mental Health Executive Director Julia Jackson said.

Under a program being developed by the Columbia County Sheriff's Office and community groups, people finishing their sentences at the jail will have a "warm hand-off" to volunteers who will help them through the first day.

A month before their scheduled release, inmates who choose to participate in the program will sit down with a panel from the Sheriff's Office and community groups.

"The goal of this initial meeting will be to discover, on the panel's part, all of the barriers and needs that this individual has as they move from incarceration to transition back to the community," Columbia County Jail Commander Captain Tony Weaver said.

At 8 a.m. on the day of their scheduled release, the inmate will be met by a volunteer who will drive the inmate to any meetings scheduled that day, which could be with social services like mental health or medical providers and housing or employment resources.

In between appointments, the volunteer can take the program participant to get coffee or lunch or show them important locations like offices for medical or social services and churches.

"It gives them that running start," Weaver said.

The program came about through the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. Weaver, Columbia County Circuit Judge Ted Grove, Ellyn Bell, the director of the domestic violence advocacy and shelter organization SAFE of Columbia County, and CCMH staff were charged with developing the program.

"Everybody was looking at how we could do our part," Bell said. "One of SAFE's particular interests has been for women coming out of jail who oftentimes have been abused ... A lot of times when people get out of jail, when there aren't supports in place, you can be led right back into bad habits."

Those involved in the program hope that it will provide companionship on a potentially stressful day and connect formerly incarcerated people with resources available in the county.

"By all of us offering all of these together, there's hopefully a wraparound type of service," Bell said.

Grove and Jackson have noted that the program would be an opportunity for the recovery community to assist incarcerated people.

Local churches have also been looped in as a source of volunteers. Bob Thiessen, who runs the jail's Life Lessons program for individuals in custody, has begun the process of reaching out to churches to find volunteers. Volunteers will still work with and respect the boundaries of those uninterested in religious talks, Thiessen said. Thiessen said he expects the volunteers will work in pairs.

The program will be paid for by the inmate benefit fund, which uses a portion of revenue from inmates' commissary purchases for programs that directly benefit inmates, Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley explained in an email, adding that the program will hopefully start by the end of the year.

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