Cobb County’s reentry initiative offers education, training, and preparation for employment to qualifying inmates.
By Jennifer Morrell
Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by the Cobb Sheriff’s Foundation, Inc.
Cobb County’s Sheriff, Craig Owens, and his command staff are changing the way qualifying inmates think about life after jail. Rather than releasing these inmates back into society both unprepared and unskilled, Sheriff Owens has chosen to focus on educating and training those who want to better themselves and to live a more productive life.
“When Sheriff Owens took office in January of 2021, he wanted individuals to be better off than they were prior to incarceration,” says Col. Temetris Atkins, a law enforcement professional who joined the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office in 1990. He first served two years as a Deputy Sheriff in Fulton County. “The Cobb County Adult Detention Center was high on population, with over 2,000 inmates, but low on programming. Programming was virtually non-existent, so we developed programing. Our programs center around the notion that you can’t incarcerate your problems away.”
Atkins says the approach was to develop a behavioral-based system that rewards compliance and good behavior. From this philosophy, “compliance dorms” were created. The compliance dorms are designated dorms within the facility that reward good behavior with heighted privileges and programs. After 30 days of incarceration with no disciplinary infractions and general compliance with the facility rules, an inmate is eligible to be selected to be placed in one of the 13 dorms.
“The slots in this area are based on space availability,” Atkins says. “But if you don’t follow the elevated rules in the compliance dorm, you will be removed and sent back to general population. If the waiting list to be placed in a compliance dorm becomes extensive, we open a new compliance dorm.”
He adds that when an inmate enters the frame of mind to qualify for the compliance dorm, educational opportunities and employment become more possible when he or she is released.
The goal is to have a minimum of 60 percent of the inmate population housed in compliance dorms. The heightened privileges and benefits of being housed in the compliance dorms are extensive. Though many of the benefits may seem basic and simplistic to the average person who is not incarcerated, inmates find great value in these little, seemingly trivial opportunities.
Examples of such privileges and benefits include open-source television, which is valuable as no other areas in the facility have televisions; a more robust selection of various board and card games; and ice buckets issued twice per day.
Compliance dorm inmates may individually purchase movies, music and video games through mobile kiosk systems. Messaging also is available as a text form of communication, also individually purchased and accessed through mobile kiosk systems.
Another added benefit is an even safer environment. “We have had zero inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff physical alterations in a compliance dorm since opening the dorms about one year ago,” Atkins says. “Once an inmate has shown a willingness to be compliant and expressed a desire to be more productive, it is our opinion that he or she has demonstrated a mindset that suggests he or she could be successful in programming that benefits him or her personally.”
The programs provided to compliance dorm inmates vary and are aligned with the inmates to best assist them. The “Anger Management Class,” which is taught by an in-house counselor but also recognized by the Cobb County Superior Court judges, has graduated more than 300 inmates in the last eight months. Another highly beneficial class, “How to Successfully Complete Probation,” is taught by an in-house counselor with prior experience as a Cobb County Probation Officer. This program has graduated more than 200 inmates in the last six months.
“Homeless Help” is a program that assists and provides resources to inmates who have declared they are homeless. Services are offered through a partnership with The Extension, an organization that has helped hundreds of homeless men and women in Cobb County take control of their lives following drug and alcohol addiction. The participants gain the skills they need to recover and lead healthy, productive lives.
Various groups have come into the facility to administer Parenting Classes. Recognizing inmates’ growth through this type of training, Sheriff Owens decided to create a more permanent program, which began in mid-August. The Parenting Classes are now taught by a newly hired part-time counselor.
“Builders Trade Academy Classes” are taught by the Georgia Building Trades Academy Inc. The goal is to increase the number of qualified candidates for apprenticeship, improve the diversity of the construction workforce, and to increase retention rates among apprentices. This is accomplished through the provision of a deeper understanding of the industry and the role of craft unions in construction.
Cobb Works is an organization that focuses on customers of all ages, experience levels, and backgrounds who can benefit from additional training to increase earning potential. The group facilitates the “RESTART Program” in the compliance dorms, which is an education and employment program for inmates. Additionally, to assist inmates with voting rights information, the Cobb County Charter of the NAACP provides voter registration applications and instructions to inmates.
Through the “Facilities Upkeep Program,” select individuals from the compliance dorms may volunteer to be a part of a group that assists the maintenance team and custodial engineer teams with small projects throughout the facility. Sheriff Owens and his command staff believe many inmates enjoy participating in productive tasks and appreciate the opportunity to learn valuable skills.
An inmate-led art class also is available in the compliance dorms and is highly popular. “We can’t arrest our way out of the crisis of criminal activity,” Atkins says. “We also don’t want to turn people out being less prepared than when they came in. We want to prepare them to be integrated back into the world.”
Though mindful of security and keeping the primary mission at hand, Sheriff Owens and his command staff are bettering the futures of inmates, teaching them that it’s never too late to start again and to build a promising future.