Jail Tours Provide Wake-Up Call for At-Risk Teens
January 16, 2013
"At risk kids are able to see and hear first-hand the effects of making a right decision versus a wrong decision," says Deputy Sheriff Lieutenant Steve Elbert, about the tours and presentations he leads at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. The Sheriff’s Office initiated the Teen Awareness Program (TAP) a year ago, in partnership with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, to become part of the court’s diversion program for first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders. Juvenile Intake Services provides a variety of diversion programs in lieu of the formal court process.
Tours are scheduled 5-10 times per year, during summer and other school breaks. The Sheriff’s Office limits each tour to 15 teenagers and strongly recommends to the court that a parent accompany each teen.
"When parents share this experience with their teenager," explains Elbert, who developed the TAP initiative, "they have something to discuss on the ride home from the jail. If the parents see new signs of poor decision-making weeks or months later, they can return to the same discussion."
The day starts with a presentation about the demographics of the jail population, the range of criminal charges, the different levels of security, the role of a deputy sheriff and the daily schedule for inmates.
After the introduction, Elbert takes the group on a tour through the intake process, the crowded holding cells and the different housing areas. The emphasis is on the lack of privacy, loss of freedom and privileges and the monotony of daily life.
Following the tour, Elbert and a pre-selected inmate talk about their parallel situations, the choices each made and the radically different outcomes.
"Early in high school, I occasionally ran with some bad crowds," says Elbert. "Twice I found myself in a situation where I could commit a felony with my friends or walk away. Both times I made the right decision. Today, I am a law enforcement officer, working in a great community for a highly regarded Sheriff’s Office. Had I chosen differently 30 years ago, I would not have been afforded this career opportunity."
An inmate who has shared the stage with Elbert on a few of the tours faced similar situations as a teenager, but he made different decisions. "Now," explains Elbert, "instead of finishing his four-year degree at George Mason University, this young man is a convicted felon living in a jail cell."
"When he gets out," said Elbert, "he will be an ex-con, which means he will have a tough time finding a job, he will have to work three times as hard to prove himself, and he will be at risk for repeating the same poor choices that landed him in jail in the first place."
The teenagers have the opportunity to direct their questions to the inmate after he speaks. The most frequently asked questions concern whether the inmate can contact family and friends and how often he can have visitors. Parents often ask the inmate if his path to jail was related to, or influenced by, the use of illegal drugs.
Colleen Cramer, a hearing officer in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, was impressed when she accompanied Elbert on the first tour. "Your tone of professionalism and respect and your recognition of the fact that many inmates are good people who make poor choices help our diversion program participants realize that someday it may be just one decision separating them from the people they will be seeing behind bars," said Cramer.
A parent reported to Cramer that on the way home from the tour, her son said he would not have done what he did had he seen the jail beforehand. "The Sheriff’s Office should continue to provide young adults with this wake-up call," the parent wrote.
The Sheriff’s Office is preparing to expand the program to include referrals from School Resource Officers. The SROs are assigned to middle and high schools throughout Fairfax County during the school year, with the goal of creating and maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment for students, teachers and staff.