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Monday, March 24th, 2014

Program helps inmates see path to freedom

By Kathy Thompson

Kristie Gillette, 19, cries Sunday morning as she stands before 21 inmates at th. . .

CELINA - A group of inmates at the Mercer County Detention Center went on a journey of self-discovery during the weekend.
Lynne Taylor, 55, of St. Marys, for the last year has held Freedom 101 classes at the jail at no cost to help female and male inmates better their lives. The program uses humor, music, self-therapy, reflection and journaling as tools to help offenders redirect their choices to live a more positive lifestyle.
Taylor said she presents the cognitive behavioral program at jails in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to teach inmates to deal with anti-social attitudes and peers, lack of empathy and impulsive behaviors. She took the class herself to deal with personal issues and became a certified instructor.
"This is to show them not only why their actions landed them in jail, but makes them think of what they were doing on the outside that led to their incarceration," Taylor said. "It also teaches them how to avoid the behavior that got them into trouble."
Twenty-two women attended the nearly 20-hour program from Thursday through Sunday. It was the second session offered by Taylor for females and the fifth overall at the jail.
Jodie Lange, chief corrections officer at the jail, believes the program is having a huge impact - more than 50 percent of those who have taken the class haven't returned to the county jail. In all, 39 inmates took the class and 22 have not been back, she said.
"There's more to a person than the worst mistake they ever made," Lange said. "That's what this is about. Showing them that one mistake doesn't have to ruin or control the rest of their lives."
The program is geared around trust, fears and barriers, responsibility, intentions, results, forgiveness and values, Taylor said. It also includes a challenge, she said.
"It really helps them see that in reality, people inside and outside jail all have problems," she said. "It's how we cope with problems and how we handle issues that makes the difference."
Lange said most inmates have low self-esteem and some have issues from their past that they haven't or don't know how to deal with.
"We take those issues, bring them right up front and deal with them," Taylor said.
You can actually see a physical change in some of the inmates when they've completed the program, Lange said.
"Many tell me this is the best program they have ever been to," she said. "It is a self reflection of themselves. It teaches them to be responsible for their actions, to understand their reaction and actions and helps them make better decisions," Lange said. "It helps them understand why they do and did the things they do or have done."
On Thursday, many of the women sat in a circle looking bored, eyes gazing at their feet or up at the ceiling, knees and feet jiggling and arms crossed.
"This program is going to cut through all the crap you've been carrying around," Taylor told them. "You've been walking around wearing a mask and hiding behind walls. That ends today."
By Sunday, the women were smiling, seemed relaxed and were joking with each other and Taylor. Although they all appeared emotionally exhausted, there was laughter and a lot of tears.
Taylor asked each to announce their "commitments" for life such as opening up to two people per day about their true feelings, journaling or using the life instructions they gained from the classes. She also played a song for each inmate that was specifically selected for her.
Inmate Kristie Gillette, 19, who is in jail awaiting trial for drug trafficking, couldn't hold back emotions when she told the others she "isn't broken."
"I've learned it's OK to hurt," she said as her tears turned to a smile. "We all have battles with something. But now, I got this."
Amanda Gates, 28, of Celina, who is in jail on a charge of trafficking heroin, said the program left her feeling she can now forgive herself and others.
Sitting next to Gates on Sunday was Tina Ebright, 48, who was convicted of drug charges. Ebright said she's scared and anxious about going to prison in Marysville but thinks she can handle it better now after taking the class.
"This has freed my soul," said Ebright, who has been a heroin addict the past 29 years. "I believe I can look forward to the future and I can't thank Sheriff Grey enough for allowing us to be a part of this."
Her daughter, Kalista Powell, 26, also at the jail on drug charges, said the classes taught her how to "be OK with myself."
Taylor offers the classes at no cost to the county. But that may someday change, according to Sheriff Jeff Grey.
"Many volunteers in our community have been wonderful about coming here and spending their time," he said. "But there may be a day when they can't do that anymore. That's one reason it's vital to see a strong success rate in programs like this. If a program isn't helping, then it's gone. I'm not going to waste taxpayer money on something that doesn't work."
Taylor said the lessons learned by inmates sometimes are a "bitter pill to swallow."
"I show them that resistance, revenge and resentment are all tied together," she explained. "How just one decision made can have a ripple effect that impacts hundreds, maybe thousands of other lives. Bad habits can be hard to break. And sometimes it feels like a slap in the face to have yourself thrown back at you."
Lange said she hopes the inmates who take the class make better lifestyle choices when released.   
"Ultimately, that would be reaching our goal and it will have a positive effect on the entire community," she said.
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