HANCOCK COUNTY — Standing inside one of the holding cells at the Hancock County Jail, Matthew Graham, a mental health counselor with Quality Correctional Care, took the challenge coin out of his pocket and handed it to inmate Wesley Fair.

Fair earned the coin, Graham said.

The coin had been in Graham’s pocket every day for the past several months to remind him how serious his job is — trying to help inmates change the direction of their lives and get onto a positive track.

Graham only hands one over to an inmate if he feels they earned it.

Fair was the 100th inmate to graduate from the jail’s Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) class since the jail opened in May 2022. The coin symbolized how hard Fair has worked toward his graduation certificate, Graham said. The MRT class is a systemic treatment strategy that seeks to decrease recidivism among offenders by increasing moral reasoning.

“I’m passing this onto you, Wesley,” Graham said. “When I first started here, I took one of these challenge coins and carried it in my pocket, and when we got to our 50th graduate I gave them my coin and now I’ll do the same for Wesley and then again for our 150th inmate who graduates.”

Fair, a Greenfield resident, does have a lengthy criminal background for issues such as drug abuse and domestic battery, court records show. He’s in the county jail for violating his probation. However, instead of simply serving his time this time around, Fair decided he needed to change the direction of his life and put forth a real effort to do so by signing up for self-help classes while incarcerated.

“The inmates truly want this kind of opportunity and we’re glad we can give it to them,” Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said.

Burkhart has worked diligently to start and grow the jail’s Navigation Program, which allows inmates to sign-up for all kinds of self-help educational opportunities, including the MRT class.

“We just want these inmates to get their lives on track, be good citizens and good neighbors and, believe it or not, that’s what they want, too,” Burkhart said. “The graduation is pretty symbolic, I suppose, because it takes about four months to get through the process.”

Tuesday afternoon inside the county jail, inmate Samuel Jewell and Fair were inmates numbers 99 and 100, respectively, to graduate from the MRT class. Both say they have firmly set their sights on restarting their lives in the right direction.

“When I first got here, I was pretty skeptical about this class,” Fair said. “I had signed up for it three or four times and had backed out each time.”

However, the last time when Fair signed up, he followed through and took the class, and it’s been one of the best decisions of his life.

“The class has been the complete opposite of what I thought it would be,” Fair said. “I’ve learned to forgive myself, and I’ve learned that I can’t control everything.”

Fair said he’s tired of having his young son visit him in jail — something he did with his own father — and is now determined to break the cycle to make sure the criminal behavior in his life is behind him.

“I want to be a good father to my son,” Fair said. “I’d seen my dad in jail when I was growing up, and look where I ended up.”

Major Robert Campbell of the Sheriff’s Department also attended the graduation ceremony and said one of the goals officials at the jail are trying to achieve with programs like the MRT class is to stop the cycle of poor decision-making they’ve seen in families.

“I’ve seen up to four generations sitting in a cell block at Christmas time,” Campbell said. “I think we have a goal here for you (Fair) to stop this cycle, and you are the only one who has true control over that.”

For Jewell (MRT graduate #99), he’s serving a sentence for drug issues and carrying a gun without a license in the county. The ceremony represented an opportunity for him to show he’s taking control of his life and is pledging to start a new one once he gets out of jail.

“It all starts with coping with your past,” Jewell said. “I want to be a part of something big, something to be proud of and that’s what this class has been like.”

Graham reminded Jewell he will only be successful if he is honest with himself and sets himself up for success by staying away from the people and situations that got him arrested and sent to the county jail.

“The five people you surround yourself with the most will give you an indication of the progress you are making,” Graham said.

Hancock County Council woman Keely Butrum attended the graduation ceremony in support of the MRT class. Butrum said she’s known one of the graduates, Fair, since they were classmates as children. She was pleased to see Fair and Jewell both take positive self-help steps to better their lives.

“I came in a few times earlier and visited Wesley when he started taking the class and I support him,” Butrum said. “I can honestly say I love this MRT program … A lot of people can’t afford specialized help, and this kind of a care program can provide that. So, as a council member, I could not see not funding something like this.”

During the ceremony, Graham had fellow MRT classmates ask the two graduates questions and, if they answered correctly, the fellow classmates responded by giving Fair and Jewell a positive “thumbs up.” That, Graham noted, is a good sign as the inmates face their present situations honestly and set positive goals for their futures.

“This is their time,” Graham said of the two graduates.

Burkhart said that, of the 100 inmates who have graduated from the MRT class, some 90 of the inmates have left the jail and only five have gotten into trouble and landed back behind bars.

“We’ve got guys and gals in jail here who have unfortunately been in facilities all over the state, and they tell us there are just not these kinds of self help opportunities elsewhere,” Burkhart said. “For a lot of these inmates, this is the first time they’re getting focused attention — somebody showing they care. Other sheriffs across the state, they tell us nobody else has what we’ve got going on.”