New Resource Center Helps People Leaving Salt Lake County Jail Return to Community

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Leaving the Salt Lake County Jail was once an isolating and confusing experience. Once released, a person would collect their belongings, board an elevator, walk past a sliding metal door, and – after the heavy door closed – essentially remain alone.

A set of black-painted footprints – known as “footprints to freedom” – were all that led them through a nondescript beige room to the outside world.

If they had a pending court date or had to meet certain release conditions, no one called them back. If they had been locked away so long that their phone was dead, there was no place to charge it. If they had nowhere to go or where to find their next meal, no one was there to point them in the right direction.

Often people would walk to the, Maverick convenience store now closed to make calls or wait, said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. People who were looking for them were also waiting there. Too many of those released ended up in jail.

Now, however, leaving police custody is a completely different experience.. And Wilson hopes that will lead to fewer bookings again.

Today, a person released from prison walks into a sage green room, where a U-shaped sofa and several device chargers are ready for use. There are also snacks and water. The “footprints to freedom” remain, but now they are painted in all the colors of the rainbow. Staff from Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services, Salt Lake Legal Defenders and Valley Behavioral Health are asking each person if they need help. Officials call it the Prison Resource Reintegration Program.

“It’s support for breaking a bad cycle,” Wilson said.

The changes have already made a difference “night and day,” she said, going from “good luck” to “Hey, how can we help you with the next phase of your journey?”

Among the first of its kind in the country, the pilot program was launched in April and officially launched in August, Wilson said. So far, staff have assisted approximately 850 people. This figure does not take into account those who ask a simple question, stop using a charger or grab a bottle of water before taking off.

“There must be a better way”

The program began with a conversation between Wilson, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and other county officials, said Brian Lohrke, associate director of Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services.

Wilson said she wanted to understand the “gaps” in the county’s social service systems and try to help those who seemed to be cycling between jail, hospitals and emergency services.

“I remember years ago, I just felt like there had to be a better way to deal with people being released from prison,” she said.

Officials thought of setting up a trailer outside where people could stop after their release. Lohrke said other facilities have done so, but officials decided to go a different route, betting they would attract more people by offering these services indoors, where they can’t be missed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Case managers wait to assist former inmates of the Prison Resource Rehabilitation Program at the Salt Lake County Jail, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

The county applied for a grant from the Department of Justice in 2021 to undertake this project and was awarded $1 million this year to renovate the space and operate the program. The county also allocated money received through the American Rescue Plan Act.

It was a one-time grant. Wilson said county officials will measure the impact of this program and, if it works, “we’ll find a way to keep it funded.”

The main goal of county officials is to reduce recidivism. Someone runs the site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, and Lohrke said officials aim to increase those hours so program staff can connect with everyone.

How it works?

Courtney Blazor, a case manager at Criminal Justice Services, had been talking with Temitope Olaleye for a few minutes after coming out of the sliding doors and sitting down at his desk.

Blazor had already given him a phone number to call for a free cell phone. He had already tried, he said, and it hadn’t worked. Maybe this time it would.

She then asked if he understood her release documents. Olaleye, who had been jailed earlier in the morning for a misdemeanor, said he did.

“Is there anything else we can help you with before we leave?” ” she asked.

“Well, how long do you have man?” Olaleye replied “I didn’t want to take too long.”

He had no questions about services. He just wanted to ask about the war in Ukraine. When he was done, Blazor reminded him that he could have some snacks and a drink. He left with a bag of pretzels and water.

“Good luck,” she cried.

“Thank you,” he said.

Without this program, Blazor said people are likely to perform worse.

“My take on this one, before I started working here, was, ‘Oh, they know the resources. They just don’t use them. But since she’s been here,” Blazor said she realized, “No, they really don’t know.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Footprints of freedom lead those released from jail to the exit door, at the Salt Lake County Jail, Thursday, August 11, 2022.

She posted a dashboard on her office computer to see what services have been used since the program began. Most people are looking for housing, addiction treatment, mental health treatment and information about legal services.

The program also provides vouchers for clothes or shoes, she said, and provides a free landline for people to contact loved ones or call for a ride.

In July, before the program was officially launched, Wilson’s office received a letter from someone who had just been released from prison.

“I am very impressed with your (criminal justice services) prison recovery program and staff, resources, information and civility,” he wrote.

He said he felt lucky and appreciated “the support, assistance and guidance” after his release.

On the same day, Blazor helped Olaleye, she helped a woman with a referral for mental health treatment.

Little things — like having a phone available or letting people know they can still get meals at shelters even if there are no beds — make a big difference, she said.

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