When Ashley Warenski is released from the Utah County Jail, she’s made a plan to go into a sober living program rather than fall back into the cycle of her addiction.
Warenski said she wants this time to be different than the other times she’s left jail in the four years she has used drugs.
“I was going to home and do(ing) the same thing over and over. … Now having everyone here to support me, I’m going to take advantage of it,” she said.
Warenski said her experience in jail has been different than in the past because she’s had the support of the ChainBreakers program, which strives to inspire inmates to make necessary changes in their lives with resources and support. The program helped her design a plan and then be there to help her follow through with it.
“Without that support, I’d be going home to do the same thing over and over,” she said. “This is a chance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I’m taking and running with it.”
Chief Deputy Darin Durfey with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Bureau said the program came out of discussions about how to better serve inmates and help them break the cycles of repetitiously coming through jail.
“We get sick and tired of seeing people get out of jail, overdose and die. ... Our objective should be to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
From those conversations, ChainBreakers was developed. The participants have to be inmate workers, be actively attending a spiritual or religious program while in jail and be willing to do additional programming.
As part of the program, they receive individualized plans for their lives after release, get connected with resources, lessons, receive one-on-one therapy and group therapy.
They are also connected with mentors that come to the ChainBreakers program through a partnership with community groups, including the LDS Correctional Services team.
Durfey said hopefully the program helps the participants break the cycle of recidivism and lead a successful life.
“All these guys are our neighbors, and when they get out of jail they’re your neighbor, my neighbor, someone else’s neighbor,” he said. “You want them to return and be a productive member of society and I know they want that too. The objective is hopefully to give them the tools and the resources they need to make that effective change and be more productive.”
Durfey estimated they have worked with 150 female inmates since the program began in April 2017. They recently expanded the program to include male inmates.
“That’s not to say that everyone is going to be successful,” he said. “There will be people that come back to jail, but hopefully at some point we’ve done enough to give them that ability to make that change.”
James Childs, ChainBreakers program director, said so far, he has noticed participants coming back to jail far less often and, if they do, they return on less significant charges.
Childs said he began volunteering with the jail in 2013 as a way to give back after struggling with addiction and being in and out of jail as a teenager and young adult. He has been clean, sober and out of the criminal justice system for nearly 15 years.
While volunteering, he said he began to see all the more clearly issues that made it difficult for individuals, such as a lack of accountability and difficulty accessing resources for those unfamiliar with the system.
“It wasn’t necessarily that the programs weren’t giving good accurate information, it’s when you send someone along back on to street and expect them to implement those things in their life where they lack skills, we should not be surprised process breaks down quickly,” Childs said.
The program works holistically to encourage and help the participants take control of their lives.
“Our big objective [for inmates] to go on and live a remarkable life, and a byproduct of that is you decide drugs don’t belong in your life,” Childs said.
Childs said what makes the program so successful is they get to know the differences in each situation and then work to help each individual.
“The secret sauce is that we take time to get to know and understand the unique circumstances of that inmate’s particular life and understand ways to help them feel accountable for what brought them to jail, and we as a staff understand what things to [help them] implement in their life when they are released,” he said.
Lt. Jeffery Jones with the Sheriff’s Office said they put an emphasis on how everyone is an individual with self-worth and unique needs.
“What we understand is that we are dealing with individuals,” Jones said. “They might be a collective group, but they are individuals. I think that everybody that’s put anything into this sees everyone as an individual. So there desires, what makes them happy, their fears, what’s important to them, becomes more real to me.”
While in the jail, Durfey said program coordinators work to make a plan tailored to the needs and challenges each participant has, which is what separates it from other programs for inmates.
“Most of the programs in here are general, one size fits all, but one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.
Connected with resources
While developing those plans, Tiffany Allred, a program founder and substance abuse counselor, said they work to connect them with another program to go to after they are released, help them find jobs, get IDs and find housing if needed after they are released.
“We’ve said to the girls that have been out, in a lot of ways we become their voice just to help them get to certain places of find certain resources,” she said.
The program also has a voluntary support system to continue helping inmates once they are released. This is done through the partnership with LDS Correctional Services and local branches of the LDS church.
Ann Weight, clinical director of ChainBreakers, said transitioning out of jail into regular life is especially challenging. Previous jail programs didn’t provide ways for participants to keep working with the people who helped them make the plans they are trying to implement.
“Before it was kind of like, ‘Well, good luck. Hope it works out. We’ll see you,’” she said.
With ChainBreakers, Weight said they try to find out where the participants are going, who is picking them up, a phone number to reach them at before they leave the jail and work on connecting them to mentors.
Clinical staff and volunteers also follow up with inmates who want to participate in the weekly aftercare meetings on Wednesday nights at the Health and Justice Building in Provo
At the meetings, which have 12 to 15 regular attendees, they can reconnect with their support networks and receive additional resources.
“It’s an aftercare night by definition, but it’s also an accountability night,” Childs said. “They can talk about, ‘Hey, this is what you planned, promised and committed to do.’ In my opinion, it’s one of the big benefits to the program to have a face-to-face relationship that’s created with client in jail but interacting on outside allows them to put stuff to practice in life and have touch point with the people they met in the jail.”
Amber Kerlin, an inmate at the jail, said she has been through about eight treatment programs and been in and out of jail in the past, but she’s never had a program offer something like the Wednesday night meetings.
“I think being able to come in contact with the same people we are in here with helps. The second we walk out of here, we forget how bad it is,” she said. “It’s not bad; it’s super easy, but we miss our families a lot. With the Wednesday night class, I’ve never had something like that.”
In ChainBreakers, the participants have lessons on topics like healthy relationships, healthy eating, facing fears, addiction, life skills, thinking errors and mindfulness. They also meditate and have nightly recaps to discuss the day and their goals for the next.
Deputy Scott Smith, a founder of the program, said he makes sure to focus on how their future can be different when he is interacting with the participants.
“The future starts now, and they’ve got a lot of people that are in their corner,” he said.
Durfey said they also look to help participants remember their worth.
“I’d guess that a lot of people would say they haven’t had someone say, ‘You are valued,’ in a very long time,” Durfey said.
Lisa Dupuy, an inmate at the Utah County Jail, said participating in the program has given her more support to make changes in her life.
In the past, Dupuy said she went through drug court and was clean from drugs for two years, but she wasn’t sure how to continue without the structure of those programs.
“I fell right back into the routine, and it was easy, too,” she said. “It was so easy.”
But with ChainBreakers, she said she feels more confident about being able to break that cycle and become a “success story.”
“I don’t want to come here 18 times,” she said. “I’d rather come see the jail in a different way instead of being an inmate worker.”
ChainBreakers participants have an opportunity to one day return and mentor other inmates going through the program, which is key to the program.
Brettyn Colton, an inmate at Utah County Jail, said going through the program is helping her grow and prepare for her release.
“Every day, I feel stronger emotionally and spiritually,” Colton said.
Warenski said participating in the program has helped her figure out a way out of the cycle of going to jail, being released and then reoffending.
“I went from feeling like I wasn’t worth it, like I was just a statistic back to being human again, being a mom instead of this drug addict that messed up, to being Ashley again, being a daughter, a sister, being human and being viewed as a woman not just a number or statistic,” Warenski said.
She said the program has taught her more about who she is and that it’s OK to make mistakes as long as she keeps trying.
“I learned that I’m worth it,” she said.
“Yes we are,” the other women chimed in.