Leaving the Salt Lake County jail was once an isolating, confusing experience. Once released, a person would collect their things, ride up an elevator, walk past a sliding metal door and — after the heavy door clanked closed — essentially be on their own.
A set of black, painted footprints — known as the “footprints to freedom” — were all that led them past a nondescript, beige room to the world outside.
If they had a pending court date or had to follow certain terms for release, no one reminded them. If they had been locked up so long their phone was dead, there was no place to charge it. If they had nowhere to go or didn’t know where to get their next meal, no one was there to point them in the right direction.
Often, people walked to the nearby, now-closed Maverick convenience store to make calls or wait around, said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. People looking to prey on them also waited there. Too many of those released ended up back in jail.
Now, though, leaving custody is a completely different experience. And Wilson hopes it will lead to fewer people being booked again.
Today, a person exiting jail walks into a sage green room, where a U-shaped couch and multiple device chargers are ready for use. There’s snacks and water too. The “footprints to freedom” remain, but now they’re painted all the colors of the rainbow. Staff from Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services, Salt Lake Legal Defenders and Valley Behavioral Health ask each person if they need help. Officials call it the Jail Resources Reentry Program.
“It’s support to break a bad cycle,” Wilson said.
The changes have already made a “night and day” difference, she said, transitioning from “good luck” to “Hey, how can we help you in the next phase of your journey?”
Among the first of its kind in the nation, the pilot program launched in April and officially launched in August, Wilson said. So far, staff have helped about 850 people. That figure doesn’t account for those who ask a simple question, stop to use a charger or grab a water bottle before taking off.
‘There must be a better way’
The program started as a conversation between Wilson, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and other county officials, said Brian Lohrke, associate director for Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services.
Wilson said she wanted to understand the “gaps” in the county’s human services systems and try to help those who seemed to be cycling between jail, hospitals and emergency services.
“I remember years ago, just feeling like there must be a better way to deal with people being released from jail,” she said.
Officials thought about setting up a trailer outside, where people could stop after release. Lohrke said other facilities have done this, but officials decided to go a different route, betting they’d catch more people by offering these services inside, where they can’t be missed.
The county applied for a Department of Justice grant in 2021 to take on this project, and got $1 million this year to renovate the space and operate the program. The county also allocated money received through the American Rescue Plan Act.
That was a one-time grant. Wilson said that county officials will measure the impact of this program, and, if it works, “we’ll find a way to continue to fund it.”
County officials’ main goal is to reduce recidivism. Someone staffs the site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, and Lohrke said officials aim to increase those hours so program staff can connect with everyone.
How does it work?
Courtney Blazor, a case manager with Criminal Justice Services, had been speaking with Temitope Olaleye for a few minutes after he walked out of the sliding doors and sat down at her desk.
Blazor had already given him a phone number to call for a free cell phone. He’d tried before, he said, and it didn’t work out. Maybe this time it would.
She then asked if he understood his release paperwork. Olaleye, who’d been booked into jail earlier that morning on misdemeanor counts, said he did.
“Is there anything else we can help you out with before you go?” she asked.
“Well, how much time do you guy have?” Olaleye responded. “I just didn’t want to take too much time.”
He didn’t have a question about services. He just wanted to ask about the war in Ukraine. When he was done, Blazor reminded him he could grab some snacks and a drink. He left with a bag of pretzels and water.
“Good luck,” she called out.
“Thank you,” he said.
Without this program, Blazor said people stand to have worse outcomes.
“My conception of it, before I started working here was, ‘Oh, they know of resources. They just don’t use them.’ But since being here,” Blazor said she’s realized, “No, they really don’t know.”
She pulled up a dashboard on the computer at her desk to see which services have been used since the program started. Most people are looking for housing, substance misuse treatment, mental health treatment and information about legal services.
The program also provides vouchers for clothes or shoes, she said, and provides a free landline so people can loved ones, or call for a ride.
In July, before the program’s formal launch, Wilson’s office received a letter from someone who’d recently been released from jail.
“I’m very impressed with your jail recovery program (of criminal justice services) and the personnel, resources, information, and civility,” he wrote.
He said he felt fortunate and appreciated the “support, assistance and advice” after his release.
The same day Blazor helped Olaleye, she helped a woman with a referral for mental health treatment.
Little things — such as having a phone available, or letting people know they can still get meals at shelters even if there are no beds — are making a big difference, she said.