Work release inmate: “I don’t have to return to the streets”

By Amber James |

Rodderick Williams is a county sentenced inmate, in jail for violation of probation. But for five to six days a week, Williams gets to leave the jail and return to the free world, working at the Santa Maria restaurant in downtown St. Augustine as a cook, preparing meals and prepping food, trying to turn his life around.

Williams has been part of the St Johns County work release program for the past five months.

The work release program is a lesser known program and different from the work squad program. The work squad program is where inmates work for free doing landscaping and picking up trash on the side of the highway. Inmates who are part of the work release program can work at a variety of businesses and are paid.

“I have a job when I get out,” Williams said. “I don’t have to return to the streets. It keeps me out of trouble.”

The work release program has several goals.

“It’s a chance for [inmates] to get back into the habit of working and to reintegrate them into society, get them back on their feet,” Sgt. Darren Kaelin, the annex supervisor, said.

Participants in the work release program also get a chance to pay back any restitutions, child support or court fees, whereas, many other inmates that are not part of the program never pay back their fees, Kaelin said.

The income the participants make is distributed in a specific way.

Subsistence is 55 percent at all work release facilities. 10 percent of net pay goes toward restitution or court ordered payments, 10 percent goes to family assistance, including child support, and another 10 percent is mandatory for the inmate’s savings account. $100 per week goes toward the inmate’s personal incidental, etc. and the remaining goes into the inmate’s savings account, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Williams has three children ages 19, eight and seven. He said the extra income is helping out his family and is “thankful” for the opportunity as many of the other participants are.

“I’ve seen it help a lot of people out,” he said. “A lot of people here come off the streets with nothing, you know. They leave and they’ve got a place to go, they’ve got a job.”

By state law, the work release program could be in every county in Florida. There are over 35 counties that participate in the program. 24 men and six women participate in the work release program in St Johns County.

For inmates who want to participate in the program, they must fill out an inmate request. Other times, supervisors will come to inmates who have specific skills and ask if they want to participate in the program.

To be part of the work release program candidates must undergo drug screenings and background checks.

Candidates must also have been a county resident six months prior to incarceration. Their address is verified.

35 percent of their sentence has to be served before being part of the program, unless otherwise specified by a judge.

Candidates with certain crimes in their past, such as sexual battery, as well as those who have served four or more commitments to prison are not eligible for the work release program. Inmates who have a detainer filed against them are also ineligible.

Once part of the program, participants can also be taken out if they have bad behavior, if their drug test is positive, if they’re drinking on the job or if they’re not on their job site.

Once on the job, participants can’t leave the premise, have personal visits or make personal phone calls.

Participants have worked at a variety of local business including Wendy’s, McDonalds, Santa Maria, Schooner’s, Cruisers Grill, Sea Fair, several construction sites and a couple of automobile shops.

Some businesses call the annex looking for workers. Others businesses get a visit from Kaelin, who educates them on the work release program.

Most types of businesses are eligible to employ work release participants except for businesses whose primary function is to serve alcohol, like bars and nightclubs.

“Employers know as long as that person is in jail, they’re available to work,” Kaelin said.

Participants also have dependable transportation, which is a plus to employers, according to Kaelin. A van takes them to and from their job site, tailored to fit their schedule. Part of their income is used to pay for the van transportation.

Participants can’t work longer than ten hours a day and no more than six days a week.

Jessica Reynolds, a junior at Flagler College, worked at Cruisers Grill during the summer. At that time, a work release participant was employed as a cook, she said.

“At first I didn’t know he was part of the inmate release program until about a month in,” she said. “I overheard other employees talking about it. But before then I was always joking around with him and never felt awkward or uncomfortable. But after I found out he was an inmate I caught myself being hesitant and walking on my toes around him.”

But Reynolds said he was a good worker.

“He was always very friendly, and it seemed he had a good head on his shoulders,” she said.

Although a responsible employee, Reynolds said some abuse of the program did occur.

“I know he kept a cell phone at Cruisers,” she said.

However, Kaelin said there are many achievements in the work release program.

“Some people are young and never really had a job before. They come here, get a job and know what it’s like. And some of them have good success. They stay at the place their employed at and move up,” Kaelin said.

Kaelin said a past female participant became a manager of McDonalds after her release.

“People understand they do have an advantage here and they step up,” he said.

Williams agrees.

“We have a lot of guys that got out and are doing good, that are still on their jobs,” he said.

Williams also said he would much rather go to work than stay in the annex all day.

“It’s a great program. It’s a good way to reestablish yourself back into the community. Get you a job, save some money,” Williams said.

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