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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Saturday, Sep. 06, 2008

When jail is ‘best thing to happen'

MARY NEWSOM
Published in: Mary Newsom

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A lot of people would say Jan Thompson has spent the last 121/2 years coddling criminals.

She sees it differently: She's been working to make this community safer from criminals.

Thompson retired last month as the Mecklenburg County jail's first director of inmate programs. She oversaw the creation of dozens of classes available to county inmates, including drug and alcohol treatment, literacy, life skills and GED courses.

I toured the central jail with her last month, a day before she planned to turn in her keys, ID card and badge for good.

Some disclosure: She and I have been friends for years, and although I've admired what she has done, I hadn't gotten around to touring the jail until the eve of her last work day.

She showed me the intake center – where a man sat, unmoving, holding head in hands and staring at the floor – and then the room where inmates wait for magistrates. After we toured the clinic and the library, we stood watching female inmates in a cell pod.

Watching the women eating boxed lunches, I couldn't help thinking about Ashante Mayfield.

Until she was killed Aug. 19, at age 14, Ashante's life was on the kind of trajectory that seemed likely to land her in jail one day. Unmarried, she had a six-month-old baby by a man in his late 20s. She hadn't had a stable home since she was 12. She had run away from two foster families and two group homes.

Two days before my jail tour she had been shot to death sitting in a car with friends – apparently after an argument over house-sitting. The 19-year-old charged with her murder, Vanessa Hines, turned herself in just hours after my tour and is still in jail.

Thompson said most women who are incarcerated are abuse victims – sexual abuse while young, typically by close family members, and later violence at the hands of a male partner.

That's one reason all inmates are required to attend classes about domestic violence. Many of them – men as well as women – opt to take more counseling.

“Every program is full, and they all have waiting lists,” Thompson said.

So, is this coddling criminals?

Understand, Thompson has no romantic illusions about criminals. She is the daughter of the police chief of Mount Airy in the N.C. foothills and earlier in her career worked for the FBI.

But she knows that most people in jail are, legally, not guilty. They're awaiting trial. Sure, some have records, and many are eventually convicted. Nevertheless, said Thompson, “I don't care if you've got a record as long as I am tall. If you're in jail, you're not tried yet.”

Further, she knows the huge numbers of inmates with alcohol and drug abuse problems. The country spends a lot of money trying to keep drugs out, she said, “and maybe that's OK. But we need to spend a helluva lot more on prevention and treatment.”

The jail programs, she said, aim to keep inmates from returning to the criminal justice system over and over.

“The majority of these inmates will come back to this community,” she said. “They can come back worse. They can come back the same. Or they can come back better. You choose.”

Thompson told of a young woman who'd been jailed, charged as an accessory to a murder. She insisted she was innocent, and because she would not plead guilty she ended up spending two years in jail before charges were finally dismissed. During those years, she took as many classes as she could, including domestic violence counseling and the life skills classes, which teach things such as finances but more important, how to take responsibility for your own life.

Eventually, the charges were dropped. As she left the jail, she told the staff she intended to get her life together, get an education and a job, and then help women in the same situation she had been in.

“She said,” Thompson recalled, “‘being in jail was the best thing that could have happened to me.'”

Mary Newsom is an Observer associate editor, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28030-0308, or mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com.

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