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How work release worked when nobody could work

Facility reduced population, altered policies

  • 3 min to read
Wyman

HOUSING — Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman shows off the work release facility shortly before it opened in 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic created particular difficulty for one of Howard County’s correctional facilities.

The entire existence of work release is predicated on the idea that inmates can venture into the community and maintain employment, but the closure of many businesses and travel restrictions presented a unique obstacle for Howard County’s work release facility. So, the facility’s leadership had to adapt to changing employment situations and drastically reduced its inmate population.

According to Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman, work release was quick to adapt when the pandemic first began to hit the area.

“I’m real proud of the staff because really early on when county government started to get aggressive about the whole COVID-19 situation and make very difficult decisions in our community, work release was one of the first places to respond with us,” said Wyman. “Anytime you have a communal living situation, obviously the spread can happen very fast. Those procedures have been in place for a long time, and they’ve worked incredibly well.”

Like with the jail, the county’s five judges began decreasing the population at work release, which has a total capacity of 80 male inmates. Jeremie Lovall, the director of work release, said the facility’s population was just shy of full, with around 70 individuals serving sentences prior to the reduction. Those reductions came through sentence modifications to in-home detention for those who were nearly done serving their sentences. At first, work release still was receiving some new inmates, but eventually no new inmates were being accepted to the facility for a time. However, eventually inmates from the jail were allowed to transfer to work release again.

Those who remained faced the same uncertainty many do during the pandemic, with their employers either continuing to function but dealing with the ramifications of working as the virus spread or having their place of work flat out close. While such situations were burdensome for everyone, those at work release must have a job in order to partake in the program.

But in these unique times, Lovall said the decision was made to ease work requirements for inmates at work release.

“Those people, when they would come in, we would drop the requirements of getting a job in the two week time period. If they could find a job, great. If they couldn’t, we wouldn’t put that restriction in place,” said Lovall. “We had 70-some people when the pandemic started, and we dropped down to 20-some. The majority of the 20 that were still here, most of them were still working.”

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Trouble did arise, though, when the major outbreaks occurred at Logansport’s Tyson Fresh Meats and the Indiana Packers plant in Delphi. At the time, two work release inmates worked at the Tyson plant, and seven more worked in the Delphi meat-packing plant.

All were tested for the virus, and one of the work release inmates working at Tyson tested positive for the virus. That individual received a sentence modification to in-home detention afterward.

Similarly, testing and screening at work release for those entering the facility began in March. Temperatures were taken at the door, and they were screened for symptoms. Those who may have needed a test for COVID-19 were sent to an area hospital to receive a test, and their sentences were modified to in-home detention while they awaited test results.

While those being detained at the facility were screened for temperatures and symptoms, other restrictions had to be put in place as well. Before, inmates could earn passes to see family or venture outdoors for rec time or smoke breaks once they had accrued enough time at the facility with good behavior. They also could have visitors. But, the pandemic forced changes to these policies as well. Visitations and passes were nixed for work release inmates, and Lovall pivoted to allowing daily phone calls for inmates and relaxed requirements for outdoor time.

“They were concerned about their families,” said Lovall. “They couldn’t get out of the building. Everything was cut off. Passes were stopped except for work … I opened up that to alleviate some of that fear because it was new for all of us.”

As restrictions have begun to be eased in the community and state, Lovall said work release has begun to accept new inmates again. As of last week, more than 30 individuals were serving sentences at the facility.

While the pandemic continues, Lovall hopes for an eventual return to normalcy for work release.

“Really, we’re just hoping to get back to normal. Everybody still has to work. So at some point when it reopens, you can’t hold these people back and not let them have a job,” said Lovall. “At some point we have to return to some normal and keep our restrictions and policies in place to protect the guys.”