Wearing bright yellow safety vests, Linda Brown and Michelle Red Water carefully washed, dried and folded massive heaps of laundry at the Care Campus in Rapid City last month.
Brown, a 47-year-old Rapid City resident, said she's worked with laundry in the past but is gaining new skills at the Care Campus.
"I've learned to be on time," she said with a laugh. Brown said she's also learned how to be flexible and work with others.
While Brown and Red Water are working hard and learning new skills, they're not working a typical job or being paid in hard cash. They're part of the Community Work Program, a new initiative meant to keep low-level, non-violent offenders out of jail, one of the goals the local criminal justice system is working on as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge.
The work program launched in August 2018 after being designed with input from local law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, said Brian Mueller, chief deputy at the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the initiative.
Participating in the work program rather than being sent to jail means "people can be out in the community, living at home, supporting their own family," Mueller said. It "teaches offenders basic job skills while allowing them an opportunity to give back in their own communities" and is a "win-win program" for the county, taxpayers and participants.
More than 100 people have participated in the program so far, said Vanessa Skaare, who coordinates the program. They do different kinds of work at the Care Campus and county complex and can also be assigned to the Humane Society, Feeding South Dakota and the Cornerstone thrift store and mission.
Low-level offenders — such as those convicted of DUIs, petty theft, trespassing and disorderly conduct — and people who violate conditions of Veterans Court can be sentenced to community service with the work program instead of jail, Skaare said.
The program is also an alternative for people who are given bonds for being very behind on child support payments but have no job, Skaare said. Instead of being sent to jail, they are given an ankle monitor that costs $6 a day. For each hour they work, $8 is taken off their ankle monitor account. Skaare also helps them write resumes, search for jobs and will write job recommendations for those who excel at their work. The participants leave the program once they find a job and the ankle monitor comes off once they pay their bond.
Two people assigned to the Humane Society eventually got hired there when their "supervisors saw that they had a really good work ethic, showing up on time, no issues," Skaare said.
Red Water says she owes $389 in child support each month but fell behind on her payments when she couldn't find a job after moving to the Pine Ridge Reservation to take care of family after her father died. In addition to doing laundry at the Care Campus, she also takes out trash around the county complex, shovels snow and cleans prison-transport buses and the bathroom and break room at the sheriff's office location at the fairgrounds.
She said she's willing to take any permanent job she can find. "A job is a job. As long as I'm living and working, I don't care."
Red Water, who doesn't have a permanent home, is living at the Cornerstone Rescue Mission to help stay sober while attending anger-management and drug-treatment classes.
"They're rehabilitating me and they're saving my life in the process and they're putting positive things in front of me," she said of the work program and classes she takes.
Red Water said she would have handled being sentenced to jail since she always tries to have a positive attitude, but she said with the work program, "I'm able to live. I'm able to live out and work and be in the community and be a positive role model for others who are in my situation."
Brown, who was sentenced to 20 hours of community service for a low-level crime, said the work program "brings a lot of closure, you don't have to run from warrants or run from cops."
Brown said she can't work full-time due to a back injury, but the program has inspired her to volunteer in the future.
"I'd love to donate my time in the community," she said.