Former inmates released from the Cambria County Prison walk out the gate hoping to be met by a friend or family member, but the 27 people released Monday from the Day Reporting Center found the atmosphere significantly different.
Blue and white balloons bounced in the humid air, “Congratulations” signs hung inside the Cambria County services building and the participants were given plaques.
As a hot, catered lunch waited at the back of the room, each participant was handed a potted bamboo plant – a symbol of patience and the need to take time to grow.
“If it wasn’t for the DRC program, I don’t know where I’d be, probably back in the gutter again,” said John Ribblett.
One of the first in the state, the day reporting center was opened in May 2012 to help alleviate jail overcrowding and attempt to reduce the rate of recidivism with specific groups of offenders.
The program, which keeps defendants out of prison, is aimed at nonviolent offenders convicted of crimes such as DUI, drug violations and burglaries. County judges have rejected sentencing offenders of violent crimes, sex offenders and those who have committed serious property crimes.
Housed at 499 Manor Drive, Cambria Township, the center has the ability to manage up to 100 direct sentence offenders, probationers and parolees, said John Hogan, center director and part of the BI Inc. staff.
A most times, the center has about 75 participants.
Hogan termed Monday’s event as a transition celebration, calling them rewarding events for participants and their families, probation officers and center staff.
“The clients who are graduating have worked hard to complete this program. This is a major step toward becoming contributing community members,” he said.
Ribblett, 55, of Johnstown, picked up on drug charges, said he gave 110 percent to the program and believes he is a better person who will stay out of trouble.
“I’ve been straight for close to seven months and I feel a whole lot better than I did before,” he said.
Jimmy Claar, a Windber native now living in Johnstown, said staying out of jail and practicing the discipline required by the reporting center gave him what he needed to get a job. He works for a utility contractor installing sanitary sewer lines.
“I looked at it as a get out jail free card when I started,” Claar said.
But it was much more, he said.
“I made it there everyday, thanks to my Aunt Grace Brallier,” Claar said. “I never missed a day.”
“I’m working, I have blisters on my hands, I’ve busted butt everyday instead of trading drugs and I’m never going back to that,” he said.
Statements like Claar’s are priceless, according to leaders like Cambria County Commissioner Mark Wissinger and prison Warden John Prebish.
“It’s good for these people and their families, for the community and for the county,” Wissinger said.
For every defendant who can be sentenced to complete the requirements of the center and not return to prison, it is one more empty bed, Prebish said.
“Today we have 120 contract prisoners from the state and that wouldn’t be possible if these people would be in jail,” he said.
Estimates made in 2012 are that it costs the county $24 a day to keep a person in the day reporting center, $31 less than the $55 a day to house that person in the county prison.
The reporting center program requires the defendants to report in every day, be drug or alcohol tested if required, get any needed counseling and conduct job searches. Those with jobs are free to head out and earn a living.
Stacy Morris, reporting center director and county probation officer, told family, friends and county court officials that there are no excuses in the program.
Morris challenged the participants:
“You now face a greater task ahead of you. When you stumble, it’s part of the normal rhythm of life. But pick yourself up and keep going,” she said.
BI Inc. contracts with the county to operate the facility and county residents run the center.
BI was established in 1978 and is part of a global leader in delivery of correctional, detention and residental treatment services to federal, state and local government agencies.