Some form of community involvement is essential to improving outcomes for formerly incarcerated men and women, according to Lake County Sheriff Daniel Dunlap. He says the larger community, not just family, has a critical role to play in their future success or failure. This is why Sheriff Dunlap and his staff welcome more than 140 volunteers into the facility each year to provide vital services and community connections.

Sheriff Daniel Dunlap

Rather than take a cynical attitude toward the inmates’ limited chance for success in light of dismal recidivism rates (40%), Dunlap prefers to be optimistic about their possibilities. “Jail shouldn’t just be time spent or time wasted. Let’s make it more useful.” 

He adds, “It’s not about what you’ve done in your past; it’s where you are today and where you are going tomorrow. Jails have become not just a place to spend time, but a place, with luck and the grace of God, to provide tools to help people.” Sheriff Dunlap credits the willingness of volunteers to spend time helping inmates for making daily life better for them and the corrections officers. 

The Jail’s Annual Inmate Programming Report states, “The Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Division of Corrections currently offers one of the most extensive inmate programming curriculums found in Ohio’s county jails.” This programming relies wholly on volunteers and includes alcohol and drug recovery programs, church services, men and women’s bible studies, GED (high school equivalent degree) tutoring, library services and more. According to Lieutenant Mark Soeder, there were 17,572 inmate attendances in programs facilitated by 143 volunteers, who donated over 1,060 hours of time.

Lt. Mark Soeder

Soeder adds that volunteers coming into the jail have a calming effect on the inmates. “Volunteers fill a need we can’t provide,” he says. “The volunteers are vital to the Jail. Every day we have a program going on. The inmates are glad for that.”

Sheriff Dunlap notes that inmates often don’t have good support systems at home. “Families have to cut off ties with incarcerated individuals due to their loved one’s continued swimming away from the life ring,” he says.

Dunlap explains that while in jail, a person loses their sense of place and time. They begin to bargain with God. They say they are ready to change and live a better life. “The first weeks and months following release is a critical period for these men and women. They’ve burned a lot of bridges and can’t expect support from their families. So they go back to old friends and acquaintances, who may have been part of their criminal past,” says Dunlap. “This is the reason recidivism rates are so high.”

The jail is supporting the Lake County Jail Ministry’s (LCJM) newest initiative to coordinate volunteer groups of mentors to help newly released former inmates make a fresh start. Jail staff arrange monthly meetings for soon-to-be-released inmates so that LCJM volunteers can explain the program and offer the opportunity to participate. So far, over 15 incarcerated men and women have expressed an interest in the program.

Sheriff Dunlap has this advice for anyone interested in volunteering to mentor a formerly incarcerated individual: “You need to care at a responsible level,” he advises. “ Do trust. Do give of yourself. Go slowly and be prepared for some failures. The more support you can give, the more success you will have.”