Robertson legacy lives on in McNabb Jail to Work Program

Published 9:55 pm Saturday, June 11, 2022

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The structure that now houses the new Helen Ross McNabb Jail to Work Program for Women was originally used some eight years ago for a similar program for men. The late Edwin Robertson, who spearheaded the original men’s program, dug deep to bring it to fruition with the help of his and other area churches, donations and blood, sweat and tears.

The building sat empty for several years until a seed of an idea developed to use it for a proposed female inmate “halfway house” of sorts for those transitioning from jail to work.

Robertson, whose legacy of quietly moving mountains wherever he saw a need, was remembered during the official ribbon cutting ceremony by County Mayor Joe Brooks.

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“If he were here today, I believe he would tell us his greatest accomplishment would be his work in jail, leading those incarcerated individuals to Christ. Because of his weekly trips to witness, Edwin saw a need for transitional housing to provide a place for those moving from jail to work to become productive members of our community.

“I am most certainly satisfied that he is looking down right now. And, if he could speak today, he would acknowledge this opportunity by saying ‘well done.’”

Brooks said during his keynote speech that he plans to continue building on these types of services.

The new Jail to Work Program was not a ‘one and done.’ The idea, that took some two years of wrangling during countless Claiborne County Commission meetings, was hashed and rehashed for several months before final approval was granted.

With the help of an ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission) grant, the idea was to use $175,000 to purchase the metal building and grounds from Pump Springs Church, its then-owners. In order to be in accordance with the grant guidelines, the county was required to include a purchase agreement along with its original application, according to county commissioner Whitt Shuford.

Others on the commission were concerned about liability, safety and the budget. These and other worries were addressed.

The property was in good shape and carried a clear deed. Area factories were onboard with the work program, as were the judges and the attorney general. Anyone participating in the program would be required to sign a waiver assuming their own risk. Once accepted into the program, the inmates would no longer be under county liability. Any infraction would result in the immediate return to jail and the lengthening of their sentences, according to Brooks at the time of the discussions.

The program is designed for nonviolent inmates.

During a workshop, Commissioner Steve Brogan said he was unclear about the budget, especially the salaries shown for the initial 18 months of the three-year program.

Brooks said during the workshop that the first seven months would be spent getting everything in place before the first cohort of women is brought into the program. Only at that time would salaries begin to be subtracted, he said.

“The first 18 months is the reportable period for the data to justify them giving us the money. The remaining money is still there for the remaining nine or ten months of the program,” said Brooks, at the time.

The plan at the time was to have two deeds drafted – one that will show county ownership of the property. The county would then deed the property to the McNabb Center with the caveat that the property reverts to the county if the program fails or if McNabb decides to discontinue it for any reason.

County attorney James Estep III gave his thumbs-up to the suggestion that it be stipulated that McNabb would be liable for any insurance.

“This is not a contract. It’s a deed. They’re the owners,” said Estep. “The more you add, you’re getting more into a lease type of situation. You need to deed the property outright. The more conditions you add, the more exposure you have to liability. You don’t really want to maintain a lot of control.”

Brooks added that McNabb cannot sublease to just anyone. If they do, it must be something specific to the program.

The commission eventually adopted the resolution to purchase the property with a vote of 13 to 8.

During the ribbon cutting ceremony, Brooks thanked commissioners Sherry McCreary and Shawn Peters who were aboard the idea almost from the beginning of the struggle. The two visited a similar McNabb Jail to Work Program located in nearby Hamblen County.

“While many of the county commission were kind of on the fence or against it, these two folks took the time to actually go to Morristown, tour the facility, see what work they were doing that flipped many votes to get this across the finish line.

“What we’re here to celebrate this afternoon will no doubt have a lasting impact on the citizens of Claiborne County for some time to come.”

Mona Blanton-Kitts, president of Helen Ross McNabb Center, spoke of the program’s success at the Morristown facility since its opening in 2017.

“It’s changing lives every single day. When women leave the program, they have enough money saved to pay either the first and last month’s rent or a down payment on a condo. All restitution fees are paid. Since 2017, the women in the Hamblen County program have paid over $40,000 in restitution back to the county,” said Blanton-Kitts.

Reneika Greenley, services coordinator for the Hamblen County facility, spoke of the program’s major goal which is to reduce the number of women who leave jail only to return due to the enormous obstacles facing them on the outside.

While in the program, the women are taught better parenting and job skills. They learn how to manage their finances and they receive a good dose of therapy with the end goal of instilling life skills to help them thrive, she said.

“We want every woman to know there is hope. Recovery and rebuilding lives is possible. I have seen firsthand the hard work and dedication that women put forth in order to complete the Jail to Work program in Hamblen County and I look forward to working with the women here,” said Greenley.