HANCOCK COUNTY — The white sheets of paper sitting on each table top told story after story of how the Hancock County Jail Navigation Program is changing lives of inmates in the county jail, one person at a time.

“It’s a gamechanger,” former jail inmate Alex Jacobs said. “This program, it saved my life.”

The program, which just celebrated a year anniversary, was the focus earlier this week as Sheriff Brad Burkhart and Jail Navigator Crystal Petty, among others, gathered for a luncheon at NineStar Connect where officials showcased all they’ve accomplished with inmates in the county jail during the first year of operation.

“We didn’t build the new county jail just to be a warehouse,” Burkhart said. “We built it to be a place of hope and opportunity.”

That’s the whole idea behind the Jail Navigator Program which is currently helping about 65% of the inmates in the county jail who are trying to right the ship and get on with their lives during and after incarceration.

In addition to the program, which helps inmates connect to resources and get the help needed, officials in charge noted they’ve also developed numerous partnerships outside of the jail to continue to help inmates once they are released.

“I’d say we’ve had an extraordinary year because this program has exceeded my expectations,” Burkhart said.

That was made perfectly clear through a few of the former inmates who attended the luncheon to share their success stories of how the program helped them see the light.

For Jacobs, 32, a Marion County resident, he has struggled for 10 years with drug addiction and noted if not for the self help programs he took advantage while in the county jail, he’s not sure where he would be right now.

“It helped me to re-orient my brain so I could handle some of the shortcomings I have in my life,” Jacobs said of the Moral Reconation Therapy he took part in. “This was the first time I ever had people in a facility try to help me rather than just put me in a cell.”

Jacobs noted the Navigator Program provided him with the resources he needed and supplied him with the mental health programming he didn’t even know he needed.

“I’d never had that in my life,” he said. “I’m at a sober living place right now and for once, I actually feel like I’m part of a community, seeing a community for the first time and that’s a rewarding way to live.”

Joshua Davidson, 32, Marion County, has been in and out of jail numerous times and said this last time, after overdosing, he knew if he didn’t put forth the effort and get some help his life would be over.

“I learned about setting goals and the steps I’d need to make in order to reach those goals,” Davidson said. “I feel better about myself and I wish more people would be offered opportunities to take these kinds of programs.”

Burkhart noted they could not make the program successful without the dozens of partnerships outside of the justice system, which includes working through Hancock Regional Health and their Healthy365 Program.

“We’ve got to have the hand-off,” Burkhart said. “We can do all these things inside, but if we don’t continue it on the outside, it’s not going to work.”

For Petty, who talks with each inmate wanting to change their lives, her job is to connect people to whatever services they need to live a better life.

“It’s all about rehabilitation,” Petty said. “We help them get into any of the programs we offer while in jail, and we develop a plan with them and then connect them with resources to continue getting better once they are out.”

Petty, who spent 16 years working with the Department of Child Services says being on the ground floor and helping build the Navigator Program has been rewarding.

“I was given the vision and told to run with it,” she said. “I’d give us a B-plus or an A-minus on this first year.”

The program recently hired a third person to help grow the program, a goal they’ll continue to work on heading into year two of offering the services.

Burkhart, who grew up as a farmer’s son in the county, fought back his emotions when he shared the story of how the Navigator Program is designed to plant seeds of hope and opportunities; cultivate, grow and yield positive results as well as harvest, change, one life at a time.

Burkhart noted he failed in 2006 when it was his turn to plant corn on the family farm, but the lesson he learned from the failure was the importance of getting help, support from a team.

“If you’re going to plant the seed, you can’t do it alone,” Burkhart said. “In 2015 when we decided we were going to build a new facility, I wanted this jail to be unlike any other … I wanted classrooms, programming spaces and office space for navigation because we wanted a facility that provide hope and opportunity and think we’ve done that.”

Petty noted the program is all about providing treatment, growth and personal development opportunities for inmates and connect them to resources upon their release.

“We want to promote a system of change within the justice system,” Petty said.

When Petty was first hired to start the Navigator Program in 2022, she said there were only three programs offered to inmates. However, they now offer six additional programs and separate programs for women. They’re also working with state officials to find jobs for inmates straight out of jail, something they’ve not done before.

They also have a computer tablet program which offers additional programs where officials can offer things like E-books and other educational programs. So far, a total of 649 inmates have been a part of the jail Navigation Program during the first year, with hopes of growing the program even more.