The last time Melvin Smith was arrested, he was so hungry and tired that he prayed to God the authorities would keep him in Fresno County Jail instead of releasing him.
“I was tired because I missed my family,” he said. “I used drugs, and the meth kind of tore up my life. I lost my family, my girl and kids. I had a whole other secret life. … It just got real bad, and I missed my family and got burned out on it.”
Smith was arrested 14 times in 2013 for drug use, auto theft and vandalism. In Fresno County, law enforcement arrested him 41 times since 1999. “I was wild,” he said. In jail, his “celly” asked him where he saw himself in five years. Smith’s goal was to reunite with his family.
He’s been out of jail for four years, sober for five years and his probation ends in June. He runs his grandfather’s well and pump company, goes to church with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and is about to buy a home with a pool for his family. For birthdays, he takes his family on trips to places such as Universal Studios, Magic Mountain and Disneyland.
"I would've never guessed my life would be where it is today," he said.
During that last stint in jail, Smith went through the Transition from Jail to Community program. It helps inmates who are more likely to re-offend prepare for life after incarceration.
The TJC program, as it’s known, was started in 2013. The men who complete the program have a dramatically lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail population, in part due to the support system the program builds for them.
“We’ve had programs for many years in the jail,” Sheriff Margaret Mims said. “This one was very different.
“It provides what everybody wants — fewer victims.”
How it works
Inmates have to opt into the program voluntarily, and not just any inmate can qualify. Forty or fewer people participate in the program at a time. The jail houses between 2,600 and 2,900 inmates .
Jail staff evaluate each inmate based on how many times they’ve been arrested in Fresno County, their age and how old they were when they first were arrested. Based on that score, staff evaluate the inmate’s risk to re-offend. Only medium-to-high-risk inmates qualify.
“We don’t just choose the easy cases,” Mims said. “We’re choosing people that it make the biggest difference when it comes to criminal activity.”
Many of the inmates are serving the last months of their sentence under Assembly Bill 109, which allows for current non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders to be supervised at the county level. Their crimes include identity theft, auto theft and drug offenses.
If the inmate agrees to participate in the program, he signs a contract pledging to participate, follow the rules and stay engaged with supervision upon release.
In a typical housing unit, the inmates tend to group by race, said Michelle LeFors, Fresno County Jail’s inmate services director.
“Not in the TJC,” she said. “You’ll see mixed races sitting together, sharing a meal with each other, a snack. They work with each other as opposed to against each other. If you ask the inmates, they’ll tell you they leave their politics at the door.”
The TJC housing pod in the jail looks different from other units. The walls are decorated with finished jigsaw puzzles, collages pasted together from magazine cutouts, drawings and motivational phrases. In other pods, the men mill about, leave their beds unmade and sleep during the day. In the TJC pod, the men quietly play cards, draw or read when they’re not in classes.
The inmates who participate wake up at 6:30 a.m., make their beds, eat breakfast and are in classes the rest of the day. Classes include topics such as healthy relationships, parenting, anger management, substance-use disorder and theft diversion. The men also prepare to earn their GED and learn job readiness skills. Some choose to take guitar lessons or attend a yoga class.
The program is incentive-based. By completing certain steps or phases, inmates earn rewards such as microwave privileges or getting to drink coffee. When the highest level of the program is reached, they can earn an in-person visit with their family.
“We’ve had many of these men who have never held their children, have not been able to hug their wife or girlfriend,” LeFors said. “So that’s a huge incentive for them.”
A key part of the program is connecting the men with their probation officer before they’re released. Those who complete TJC are driven by a sheriff’s staffer straight to the probation office or sober-living facility upon release.
“Of the 3,000 folks in jail, many who come to us don’t have the opportunity to know who their probation officer is,” said Kirk Haynes, the director for Fresno County Probation Department’s realignment division. “They just hear these things in court about the terms and conditions they have to follow.”
Research has shown the days immediately following an offender's release from custody are critical when considering their future path, Haynes said.
"That's the most critical time when folks are going to decide to do well or choose not to show up and go out and possibly commit new crimes," Haynes said. "It's, 'What am I going to do with this idle time while I wait for my probation officer to call me back?' It's a huge benefit to the structure that’s here because research supports the kind of things we're doing."
Breaking a cycle
For many of the men going through the TJC program, they're taking steps to break a vicious cycle of being arrested, going to jail, getting released and returning to a criminal lifestyle, only to be arrested again.
Clinton S., 30, grew up in Fresno and Visalia in "a family of drug addicts." (The Bee agreed not to use inmates' full names for their safety. Many have dropped out of gangs and could face new threats from their former gang peers for deciding to join the program.)
He began using drugs and committing crimes when he was "at a young age." He served prison time in Utah and has been in and out of jail since he returned to Fresno in 2012. He served 15 months in Fresno County Jail and was released in March 2017, only to return two months later.
He's currently serving a split sentence of two years in custody and two years on supervised release. He's due to be released from jail in about a month and go to a sober living environment. After that he hopes to attend school or get a job.
Most of Clinton's offenses include auto theft and receiving stolen property. "It's an addiction in and of itself," he said. "I probably get more of an adrenaline rush out of stealing cars and playing the little cat-and-mouse game with the cops versus using drugs."
He joined the TJC program because he realized he wants more from life. "I know this ain't the life that I want. I'm not satisfied with what I've done in life so far. I want more. I know what I want, and it's definitely not loneliness, being behind these walls, wasting time."
As a gang dropout in jail, Clinton constantly worried about his safety. But that's not the case in the TJC program. "The main difference probably is having to worry about who's coming through that door," he said. "In a dropout tank, you're by yourself, pretty much. …There's no one else controlling the pod, so anybody could act any type of way. It's dangerous, in a way. It's like a circus, pretty much. There's fights all the time.
"Over here, you don't have to worry about fighting no one. You don't have to worry about no one wanting to take you to the corner. You don't got to worry about drugs coming in here. … Everyone in here is pretty much in here for the same reason. There is perks that they come over here for, but everyone obviously wants to change because being in jail is not cool. It gets old. You grow up quick."
The program has helped transform his mindset and taught him to persevere and that his consequences have actions.
So far, his biggest takeaway in the program is to "not give up. If you have a stumble, don't make that an excuse to just give up. Push forward because there's going to be stumbles out there.
"My old way of thinking is as soon as I'd mess up, I would instantly go back to all or nothing. It would be me against the world. Now I know that if I do stumble, it's good to have a good support system out there to help me get through it."
In the future, Clinton would like to work as a drug or alcohol counselor for youth. He hopes to get some gang-related and face tattoos removed — tattoos he got out of "boredom" while incarcerated.
He knows when he's released, he will face challenges and it will be tough to stay on the right path. "This program is not a save-all, but if you put in the work and really want to change, then you'll be able to do it."
The officers who run TJC develop closer relationships with the inmates than those who oversee the general population.
Calvin Wold, a deputy probation officer who works with the program, said that during his time working with juvenile offenders, he learned that they crave mentor relationships.
"On an adult scale, they don’t get that in the jail," Wold said. "The first time I went in the pod, the guys were straining their neck to see, 'Who's going to supervise me? Who's going to bust me if I do something wrong?'"
A probation officer's job is to be an advocate, Haynes said, and to be a resource for an offender in all aspects of life.
Sgt. Stephanie Gibbs has led the program since its inception. It's a rewarding job for her to see the men work to better themselves, which ultimately helps the community.
"I've seen the same inmates come in and out for 22 years. I've seen the children, parents and grandparents. I've seen all family members coming in and out, doing the same crimes and actually stepping it up to more violent crimes eventually," she said. "So it is really rewarding in here to see people go out and actually try to change their lives because we've all been affected by the crimes that these inmates have committed, which is identity theft, vehicle theft and burglaries. Being a victim of that, it is nice to see that somebody is trying to change their life."
TJC is reducing recidivism rates compared to the rest of the jail population. Recidivism is measured by the number of inmates who receive new convictions.
Since August 2013, 478 inmates have gone through the program, and all but about 35 of them were considered high-risk.
Nearly a quarter of the inmates who have entered the program were terminated, according to the sheriff's office.
"Basically, they’re gaming us," LeFors said. "They came in the unit for the zoom-zooms and wham-whams (perks) and have just been uninvolved. Or they’ve received a rule violation, and that’s not tolerated."
The TJC staff works with inmates who break the rules early on in the program. They receive counseling and behavior interventions, but if the behavior continues, they're removed and put back into the main population.
About 65 percent who entered the program were released on probation. More than 200 have completed their supervision, and 88 are currently on community supervision.
The number that matters most, though, is that only 54 people who went through the program were convicted of a new crime. That's 17.4 percent.
"The recidivism rate is significantly lower with this population than with other populations," said Melanie Johnson, probation services manager. "We believe it’s due to the intensive services we’ve provided while in custody, and when they're exiting the jail there's a warm hand-off with their probation officer."
That number compares to about a 46 percent recidivism rate for the jail's general population, Haynes said.
Just under 200 did return to custody for things such as violating probation or holds, but they were not convicted of a new crime.
Earl H., 39, is currently doing his second stint in the TJC program.
"Everybody deserves a second chance," he said.
"I decided to come back again because I needed to continue with my recovery," he said. "I went out there, and some detrimental things happened in my life and I didn’t know how to control it. This program gives you a lot of tools. I felt scared and ashamed and embarrassed that I had to go back to my old lifestyle. I didn’t want to. I knew I was wrong when I did it, but I decided to just pick up where I left off and come back here because I knew it would be better for me."
Earl is working to break a methamphetamine addiction he's battled nearly 20 years. He was clean for almost five years before he made a mistake and returned to jail — but he returned to general population at first. "I felt like I was back at square one," he said.
He has six months left in the program, and when he's released he hopes to rent an apartment, buy a new car and find a home church.
"In my recovery, it also needs to be spiritual," he said. "There needs to be some kind of center. For me I found my center with Jesus Christ. That's something I didn't grow up with."
The TJC also changed Earl's perception of yoga, which is one of his favorite classes now. "At first I thought it was only for women," he joked. "It challenges me — physically, mentally and emotionally — to step out of my comfort zone."
Life after TJC
Terry Sacra, 30, completed the program and was released from jail in September 2016. He was arrested in Fresno County 14 times, served time in prison and had a juvenile record dating back to when he was 10 or 11 years old.
"I wish this program would’ve been around when I was first incarcerated in jail," he said. "It probably could've helped me out a lot. It probably could’ve prevented me from going to prison."
Now, he has a job in landscaping, attends his kids' baseball games and school functions and bought a car. He hopes to find a better job with benefits so he can have health insurance for his children. He's also working on improving his credit.
Sacra still returns to the jail to visit Gibbs and the correctional officers who run the TJC program. "They became family to me," he said. "Every goal that I reached, I always called and shared that with them."
What was his biggest takeaway from the program?
"Just growing up and doing things that adults should do," he said. "I believe the program’s helped me out in all those different ways. It opened my eyes to the things I should and shouldn’t be doing."
Melvin Smith, the man who runs his grandfather's well and pump business, says he has a new "addiction" — taking care of his employees. "All of these guys' families rely on my finding work. My doing well affects a lot of different lives. Their kids eat or starve because I do or don't make money."
Smith said he still has dreams of using methamphetamine and wakes up full of regret. Now, he's working on quitting smoking. He doesn't drink, smoke marijuana or even take prescription pills. He does drink coffee, he jokes.
Now when Smith shows up in the jail lobby, he doesn't have to go through the metal detector or empty his pockets. He's ushered straight up to the TJC pod.
"I always see somebody that I know," he said. "My story is going to fall on deaf ears if it's just another story from another guy who's been through it and you don't know that person. So it's always nice to see somebody that I know there because when I leave that story gets validated to everybody that's in there that doesn't know me. And they're like, 'Wow, if Melvin can do it, anybody can do it.'"
His message to them: "Keep it up. Keep trying. Don't give up. You're just quitting on yourself."
Resources for programs
The TJC program is funded by the Community Corrections Project, which oversees all AB 109 funding received from the state. The yearly budget is about $725,000, which covers all staff and office supplies. Any other funding needs are covered by the Inmate Welfare Fund, LeFors said.
Growing the program to a larger population isn't possible because of the jail's current facility.
"Unfortunately, by simple virtue of how we’re constructed, we’ve had a difficult time looking to grow and expand this because we take up bed space that’s needed for a lot of the rest of our population," LeFors said. "We don’t have small housing units available."
She's hopeful the construction of a new jail will help the program expand. The new jail, due to be complete in fall 2020, will have smaller housing units designed for programming.
Haynes said programs like TJC take a lot of resources, making them difficult to implement. "Even at capacity, we're just scratching the surface of what we’d be like to be able to do," he said. "When you have some real resources behind you and structured programming, you can make a real difference — and we’ve seen that."
Mims agrees she would like to to see aspects of the program expand to other jail populations, but the inmates have to make that first step.
"The important part is to have it available when they’re ready for it," she said.