SARASOTA (WWSB) - The Sarasota County Jail is overcrowded. It has been for years. One option to ease the overcrowding would be to spend more than $100 million on a new facility, or you can help offenders to stop making the mistakes that land them back behind bars. That’s what the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is doing with their “pod” program.
While the number of arrests are down in Sarasota County, there’s been an uptick in inmates at the jail, and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is still trying to determine why.
“There’s been a higher increase in felony arrests," Major Brian Meinberg, Corrections and Court Services Division Commander for the SCSO said. "Obviously they stay here longer than misdemeanors. That’s part of it, but we don’t have the answer.”
Instead of spending $103 million in taxpayer dollars for a new jail, the Sheriff’s Office has taken a different approach: the “pod” program.
“What we try to do here is reduce recidivism rates," Major Meinberg said. "The definition of corrections is to correct their behavior so they don’t come back.”
For ten years, the jail has housed what’s called the addiction recovery pod. The inmates in the program are housed together, and the program itself is strictly voluntary.
“What normally would be unproductive time for inmates in jail just sitting around doing nothing, basically it is a very programmatic area where everything is based on programs and meetings and help," Lisi Brannen, QLife Operations Manager for the Salvation Army in Sarasota said.
The Salvation Army is one of the groups that provide addiction recovery classes for these inmates. Volunteers like Brannen come in twice a day, seven days a week to teach classes and encourage sobriety.
“The reaction is great," Brannen described. "The inmates that are there want to be there. They sign up to be in the pods.”
In addition, instructors from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous come in twice a day to help the inmates.
“They have to attend every single meeting," Lt. Arlene Tracy said. "The inmate cannot be violent because there are up to 48 people in there with one deputy.”
That deputy patrols 24/7 with one pod of up to 48 male inmates and one of up to 48 female inmates.
“I believe these recovery pods to be a movement in this community," Brannen said. "We are transforming lives while they are in jail.”
Now in 2019, two new pod programs have been added at the Sarasota County Jail. The first is the re-entry pod. It’s a program that’s always been a dream for Lt. Tracy. On January 7th, it became reality.
“They just give the inmates what they need to succeed in life, and then it’s up to the inmates to take it and work with it," Lt. Tracy said.
In the re-entry pod, there are parenting classes, and Career Source comes in to help them with the job search and teach them who will accept applicants with felony records.
Instructors with Project 180, a prisoner reentry program based in Sarasota County, come in to teach the inmates financial literacy.
“They are starting from scratch," Project 180 CEO Barbara Richards said. "They don’t know how to finance a car. they don’t know how their credit score can reflect upon them.”
A lesson in credit scores is the first thing instructor Max Shaw gives the inmates when he volunteers for Project 180.
“Things in their past can come back and haunt them like their credit, so they go in and learn life skills and want to do things right," Shaw explained.
shaw teaches budgeting, banking relationships and the difference between wants and needs.
“These guys are hungry and are fixing to get out.," Shaw said. "What they want is the skills to stay out of the prison system or the jail system.”
The second new pod just opened on January 14th.
It’s called the CARE pod and focuses on addressing mental health issues.
Instructors provide medication, diagnosis, anger management and discharge planning.
The jail now has 200 volunteers. Last year, they put in 11,000 hours. That’s equivalent to six full time positions, and it’s all free to taxpayers..
“I don’t know if it is a long term permanent solution because ultimately we have some old facilities," Major Meinberg said. "We have one building that’s been here since ’75 and another ’86. Our county population continues to rise, and some point maybe there would be a discussion for that but if we do everything we can in the system and we continue to, and the system is working correctly, there’s not need to build a jail anytime soon.”