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Roanoke jail seeks name change as new inmate program launches

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Roanoke jail

Roanoke, VA Sheriff Antonio Hash (right) launches the city jail's new (R)I.G.N.I.T.E. program during a Sept. 6 ribbon cutting.

A new program designed to change the culture inside Roanoke’s jail will help to change the violent culture that exists in the city, Sheriff Antonio Hash vows.

“We have to change the culture,” Hash said. “We’re committed to the process. And those who commit, see results.”

The Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office’s new program is called (R)I.G.N.I.T.E., which stands for Residents Individually Growing Naturally and Intentionally Through Education. It officially launched Sept. 6, when the department hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony downtown outside of the jail.

The first (R) I.G.N.I.T.E. program was developed by a sheriff’s office in Genesee County, Michigan in 2020.

“They realized, even during the pandemic that, we still have to change the culture of how we see incarceration, because we see the same individuals come in and go out. And they don’t get the resources,” Hash said. “[The sheriff] realized that he had to change the culture, or this is like a revolving door.”

The program’s goal is to reduce recidivism by educating inmates and giving them the certifications and support they need to be successful once discharged.

“We’re trying to give them a platform. If you’re bored, take this class. If you don’t got nothing to do, educate yourself,” Hash said. “What does it look like to get a GED, or a painting certificate, or a CDL certificate or a forklift certificate? These are symbolic opportunities or memories for them that are going to change their whole lives.”

The National Sheriff’s Association saw the program’s success in Michigan and adopted it, making it easier to transplant into other sheriff’s offices nationwide.

“They grabbed hold of it. I think somebody in Minnesota grabbed it. North Carolina grabbed it. We’re the first in Virginia to grab it,” Hash said. “As opportunities become available, as grants, as funding and things come open, we want to be in a position to where we can receive it.”

After last week’s launch, Hash presented the program to a Roanoke City Council meeting and asked members to consider changing the jail’s name, to focus on the facility’s role as a justice center, not an incarceration hub.

Hash said he met with judges last Wednesday in the Oliver W. Hill Justice Center, the city’s courthouse, to discuss a new name for the jail: the Roanoke City Detention and Justice Center.

If the change takes place, the portion of the Campbell Ave. block that houses the courthouse, jail and police department could be referred to as the “Justice Complex.”

Through (R)I.G.N.I.T.E. the correction facility is also changing the way it talks about inmates.

“Another part of changing the culture is changing the classification of those incarcerated, which will now be called residents of our facility,” Hash told city council. “They won’t be called inmates anymore. They reside in our house. We know it’s a jail. We know it’s a justice center. We know they’re inmates. But we’re changing how we respond to them.”

“Those who want to be locked up, put your stripes on. We’ll keep you,” Hash said. “But those who want change, we’re changing uniforms. The program floor will have on all burgundy uniforms at this point, with no stripes. Because if you’re getting the help, and if you’re actively seeking some assistance from our staff and program directors and things like that, then we’re going to make it look like something in this building.”

The jail already has success stories to share. A former jail resident attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony to express his support for (R) I.G.N.I.T.E.

“He got out about two weeks ago,” Hash said. “He came back yesterday to be a part of the ceremony. Who do you know gets out of a facility and yet returns back for a program? And I’m not saying that we have all the pieces together, but we’re making strides to make it look like something. Because if you don’t ever start, you can’t finish.”

The sheriff said some facility residents are discharged but return in a matter of days.

“People are still in a position where they’re crying out for help. I had a young guy come in the other day. He’s an excellent worker while he’s in the building. Amazing. He gets out and got in a position where he almost didn’t make it. You know why?” Hash said. “Because he didn’t have somebody outside the door waiting on him.”

(R)I.G.N.I.T.E. will allow the jail to better connect its residents with community resources upon release.

“I’m going to put people to the test. You can’t come to my table talking about what you got, what services you have, and then we call and you don’t answer,” Hash said. “I want you to be there at nine o’clock. Pick him up, take him to get help, so that way he become a good father to his kids. He can be productive citizen.”

The sheriff said the program needs community partners to thrive, and organizations are already on board.

“It’s a huge list,” Hash said. “We reached out to Red Robin, and they’re in the position to give jobs. We talked to a concrete company who was doing interviews inside the detention center with those individuals who were getting out that wanted a job. We got Wendy’s that was giving an opportunity.”

But the sheriff’s office still needs the community’s help.

“We need some more money. We’re taking all donations,” Hash said. “It’s not yet paid for.”

The money that will pay for (R)I.G.N.I.T.E. comes through the program’s community partners, especially nonprofit organizations who can more easily acquire grants that can be used to address recidivism.

The detention center also needs toiletries, clothes and other items to give residents when they return to society.

“As a transition, we give them toiletries, a bus pass. We started a clothes closet upstairs, so if they’re getting out, and they got an interview, guess what? We give you clothes to go to your interview. We’ll give you a shirt and tie,” Hash said. “We need donations, because we realize we can’t do this on our own.”

Hash said changing the culture in the detention center and in the city means breaking a “generational curse.” The sheriff said he “could have been a statistic,” but he chose to break his family’s cycle.

“We have a major responsibility to change lives,” Hash said. “I was in a single-parent home. No father raised me, mother doing the best she can, trying to get a college degree. I’m the oldest kid taking care of two other siblings while she’s at work and at school all day long, learning how to cook, had to learn how to sew, had to do everything because none of our fathers were there. So statistically, I shouldn’t even be in this position.”

But he is. And his department is doing what it can to return jail residents to society better than it found them.

“I want my nieces and nephews to be able to walk the street and be safe, without somebody running them over or kidnapping and raping them. Nobody wants that,” Hash said. “But some people honestly make mistakes. And so they deserve a chance. If they’re willing to let me put them in position to get this chance, I’m willing to help make it happen.”

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