Sandusky County Sheriff Chris Hilton is hoping to set fire to old ways of incarcerating inmates, as he and his staff bring the I.G.N.I.T.E. program to Ohio.
In a news conference Tuesday at the Sandusky County Jail, the sheriff, along with several sheriff's office personnel and guest attendees, revealed plans to implement the program — Individual Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education, later this year, preferably in November. The program is designed to better inmates' outcomes during and after incarceration, by participating in education programs while in jail.
"This is a concept meeting for us to be able to do that," said Hilton, who was contacted in early June by representatives of Vanguard Career Center. At that time, neither the school nor the jail had the funds to staff additional corrections officers to watch off-site inmates.
Program could have a major impact on inmates' lives
Later, at a National Sheriff's Association conference in Kansas City, the sheriff came across I.G.N.I.T.E. and thought that the program, coupled with existing educational opportunities at the Sandusky County Jail, such as the General Equivalency Degree (GED) program, could effect fundamental change within the jail population.
"The more I hear, the more I like that," Hilton said.
The sheriff's office will partner with Michigan's Genesee County Sheriff's Office, where the program was first launched on Sept. 8, 2020, according to Genesee County Sheriff's Capt. Jason Gould. Gould detailed that the program's goals include reducing rates of recidivism and providing positive outcomes for inmates and the community at large by increasing inmates' education and employability levels and their senses of purpose.
"More or less, it's about making people feel better about themselves and believing in themselves," Hilton said. The sheriff said the program's goals will take time, but are attainable.
"We can get there," he said.
The Sandusky County program is the first in the state of Ohio and the first in a small community in the U.S. Other I.G.N.I.T.E. programs are now in place in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Hennepin County, Minnesota, and Ingham and Jackson counties in Michigan.
Sheriff: 'If we can do it, they can do it'
Hilton said he hopes Sandusky County's program will inspire other smaller communities to adopt I.G.N.I.T.E. "If we can do it, they can do it," he said. "I think that we can successfully do this with what we've got."
Hilton said funding sources will need to be secured and assistance obtained through the relationships with the Genesee County Sheriff's Office and the National Sheriff's Association (NSA), but he was certain the program could be brought online by the end of the year.
"Without GCSO and NSA, we're not going to be able to do this," he said. He added that local community support will also be key.
Much of the program's success data has yet to be collected and analyzed, mostly due to COVID-19 pandemic setbacks, according to GCSO I.G.N.I.T.E. Ambassador Johnell Allen.
"COVID set us back two years," Allen said.
"Given more time, we're sure that it's coming," Gould said about the data. He added, however, that violent attacks against staff and other inmates fell from 364 in 2011 to seven in 2021.
Harvard researchers studying I.G.N.I.T.E. program
Jessica Vanderpool of the NSA added that researchers from Harvard University have recently begun compiling statistics for the program.
Mircea Handru, of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Ottawa, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties, also suggested that the local program partner for data collection and analysis with nearby Tiffin University, due to Tiffin's strong Criminal Justice program.
Hilton reiterated his enthusiasm.
"We, as public servants, are trying to better the community," he said. "Every time I think about it, I get excited, because it's what I was elected to do."
This article originally appeared on Fremont News-Messenger: Sandusky County Sheriff's OIffice bringing I.G.N.I.T.E. to Ohio