16 News Now Investigates: Work Release Walk Aways

Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 1:50 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2023 at 6:27 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - 16 News Now Investigates Elkhart County Community Corrections after more than a dozen people have walked away from work release.

But the program isn’t just another jail sentence, instead, it offers opportunities for those convicted of crimes to get help.

From the start of October into late January, 19 people walked away from work release in Elkhart County. Community Corrections Executive Director Helen Calvin says this happens for multiple reasons.

“That could just be because they’re struggling with their mental health, they’re struggling with their substance abuse issues, they’re just not ready for our program. And you never know that until they start getting engaged in our program,” she explains.

In Elkhart County, there are about 70 people on work release, which is just one of the step-down programs offered by community corrections.

“We believe that people can be rehabilitated. But we can’t do that unless they’re on our program, that we can supervise them that we can hold them accountable,” says Calvin.

But there’s more supervision on work release than other programs.

“When they’re sentenced into work release they live here. So they come in, our building is a secure facility but it is also free-flowing.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“The community needs to understand what community corrections really is. I think that a lot of people think that we’re just an extension of a jail, that coming in to work release or community corrections is a cake walk. And in reality, it’s not,” says Calvin. “I mean their time has to be accounted for, we have to watch where they’re going, we have intense treatment.”

Not everyone convicted of a crime is eligible for work release, according to Executive Director Helen Calvin.

“We do have a list that it’s a definite ‘no’. So you’re looking at murder and manslaughter and kind of those serious violent felons that are not allowed to be on our program.”

However, that doesn’t mean those who have walked away from work release haven’t committed violent offenses. Of the walk aways 16 Investigates has been tracking, seven out of 19 had domestic battery charges in their criminal history.

“We’ve worked really hard to be able to create a program where we can have those individuals within the community, build our trust within our neighborhood and community to say ‘hey, we understand that somebody is here because of domestic battery whether that’s a misdemeanor or a low level felon that does this, we realize that we’re going to have to pay closer attention’”, explains Calvin. “We try to take safeguards for our community, and part of that is if they have a victim if they’re in work release, they’re going to be on an ankle monitor so we can make sure they’re not going into a victim exclusion zone.”

She tells 16 Investigates that most people who come through Elkhart County Community Corrections are dealing with substance use or mental health issues, and trauma.

“Addiction is an awful cycle. Mental health is something that somebody deals with for the rest of their life. Nobody ever grows up to say ‘hey, I think I’ll have an addiction issue. Hey, I think I’ll grow up and commit a crime.’ There’s always something deeper,” Calvin says.

Work release includes free programs aimed at addressing those problems and resources to help people get back on their feet.

“If you have somebody who has been in prison for several years or somebody in jail for several years, and they come back out and things have changed dramatically, they’re not going to know how to cope,” says Calvin. “They feel as though they get swallowed back up by the dysfunction that brought them there. And if they can see that people care about them, respect them, treat them with dignity, and know that they’re not just defined by their criminal actions- they are human beings- that they can be successful.”

She says they see more people walking away from work release around the holidays.

“So anywhere between mid-October to mid-January you’re going to see more people walk away from the facility,” explains Calvin. “The holidays are just a difficult time for people in general, but those that struggle, it’s more so for them, and it’s too hard for them to cope and do what’s expected of them in this program. So they fall into their addiction or their mental health, so you will see an uptick during those months.”

Most who walked away between the start of October and the end of January had past probation violations, escape charges, or had failed to return to lawful detention previously. But Community Corrections Executive Director Helen Calvin says those earlier violations aren’t a factor in determining work release eligibility.

“For us when we have those that come back through, we sit down with them when they first come back in and we have a conversation. And that conversation is ‘hey, you weren’t successful last time you were on our program, so what’s going to be different this time?’” says Calvin. “It’s not always the first time they get it, it’s not the second time that they get it, maybe not even the third time. And it’s being able to figure out what is their a-ha moment that says, this clicks for me, I’m ready to make that full change.”

So whether they get through work release their first time in the program or not, Elkhart County Community Corrections is there for them.

“These people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. And provide them every opportunity and if they choose not to, that’s on them, we can’t say that we didn’t do our due diligence, they just chose at that moment. So maybe spending a little bit more time in jail for them to decide, ok, I’m ready to be back out there I’m ready to do the hard work,” says Calvin.

The program aims to help people transition out of incarceration successfully, making for a safer community in the long run.

“They are coming back out into society. And so whether they come out in a transitional program, a step-down program, the fact is is that we’re able to supervise them more intensely and get them intense programming that helps alleviate those issues,” explains Helen Calvin.

When someone violates their work release program, there is a discipline hearing board that can handle some of those violations in-house. But if they walk away and cannot be reached or located, Elkhart County Community Corrections notifies law enforcement, who will do a welfare check if there is a victim who could be impacted. Meanwhile, a warrant will likely be issued for the offender, who will be transported back to the jail upon their arrest.