Berrien County inmate program aimed at changing behavior draws national attention

Published 11:04 pm Thursday, October 7, 2010


Niles Daily Star

ST. JOSEPH — Started just a year ago, the Fresh Start Prevention Program is garnering national attention and more importantly positively impacting the Berrien County jail system, Berrien County Commissioner Marletta Seats told the county commissioners Thursday.

The program, developed by Abundant Life Ministries in Benton Harbor and begun in 2009, works to prepare female inmates to succeed when they are released from jail. It also aims to lower recidivism.

Seats, who has been heavily involved with Fresh Start since the beginning, said the program will be featured in a DePaul University documentary filmed in the Berrien County jail over the summer.

“It’s a documentary on incarceration and the impact that it has on children,” Seats said. “We’re extremely privileged to have DePaul looking at us.”

The program has helped 269 women and 53 men thus far, and 40 have graduated from the eight- to 10-week program.

Seats told the commissioners the documentary has earned attention from the federal government, resulting in the Department of Justice inviting Fresh Start officials on a national committee dedicated to the issue.

The program is beginning to change the culture in the jail, according to Seats.

“We have changed the behavior within the jail,” she said. “We’ve received 200 to 300 letters from inmates and deputies on a weekly basis on behavior changes. Not just because they’re in a controlled environment but because they’ve been taught new skills.”

Fresh Start deals with many inmates with drug addictions, teaching them “warning signals,” “positive solutions and coping skills.”

“We have women who start drugs at 8 years old because of the environment,” Seats said. “That’s their core belief. That’s normal. We need to change the mindset.”

Seats says giving the women confidence is a key factor.

“We deal with not low self-esteem. We deal with no self-esteem,” she said. “We’re trying to build it up.”

Commissioner Don Ryman told Seats about a situation of a former constituent in the 1990s who ended up in jail but didn’t get any help.

“That paradigm has changed,” Seats said. “There are programs now.”

The commissioners in May approved providing about $10,000 for the men’s program of Fresh Start.