Stephen Harmon – The Visionary Work of the Warren County Jailer

by | Oct 2023

FOR DECADES, the mentality around jails and criminal justice was “come in, serve your time, have ‘three hots and a cot,’” according to Warren County jailer Stephen Harmon. When it was time for an inmate’s release, regardless of what kind of financial, community, or family support they had, they were kicked out the door and expected to be successful. 

“Go pay taxes, pay your child support, be employed, don’t break the law — all those things that society expects,” Harmon said. “But what we recognized is, we weren’t giving them any tools to help them do that.” 

Thankfully, that mentality has shifted in the last seven to 10 years, Harmon said, especially to prepare inmates rather than just supervise and incarcerate. Harmon and his team are now on a mission to offer inmates in Southern Kentucky every tool to succeed. 

At 18 years old, Harmon never intended on making law enforcement his career. It started as a part-time job as a sheriff’s office dispatcher in high school. Eventually, he climbed the ranks and, in 2017, was appointed Warren County Jailer. Since then, Harmon has become a driving force behind transformative programs aimed at reshaping the landscape of the criminal justice system.

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

“When I started here at the jail, there was one General Education Development program,” he said. “There were no other evidence-based programs. Nothing was really helping to prepare inmates for release.” 

Recidivism is defined by the State Department of Corrections as a new felony committed within 24 months of release or a return to state custody based on a technical violation of supervision, according to the department. Harmon’s determination to reduce recidivism rates and provide inmates with opportunities for a better future led him to pitch the idea of Moral Recognition Therapy and other life skills programs for the Warren County Jail. 

“Once I got in office and figured out, you know, what the job was and how many things that I was responsible for,” he said, “I started putting the plan in motion for some reentry efforts.”

Now, the jail offers six or seven evidence-based programs that get inmates time off their sentence and, more importantly, prepare them for reentry. Classes like anger management and parenting, moral recognition therapy, and new direction classes give them life skills to succeed outside of the confines of the correctional facility. 

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

“We talk about barriers a lot — housing, employment, substance abuse, mental health, supportive or non-supportive family,” Harmon said. “We try to reduce the amount of those barriers as they make plans A, B, and C for reentering society. So that’s kind of what our mission is for reentry: to eliminate barriers that would bring you back into an incarcerated setting.” 

This year, Gov. Andy Beshear announced that the state’s recidivism rate dropped to 27.15% — a historic low. Now, over 1-in-4 people released from prison are committing new crimes. The reoffending rate back in 2017 was 44.56%, or almost 1-in-2. 

“Our inmates come from all different life stories, and some of them are pretty tragic and horrific,” Harmon said. “Obviously, we have to keep them safe and secure while they’re here, but another responsibility of ours is to try and prepare them to be successful outside of these walls.”

One of the most vital programs introduced by Harmon in 2017 was the inmate ID program, the first of its kind in Kentucky. The program has partnered with the circuit court clerk to provide inmates with identification documents, such as IDs, social security cards, and birth certificates. These documents may seem trivial to some, but they are critical tools for obtaining employment, housing, and societal stability for the formerly incarcerated.

“All those life documents that you and I take for granted, these folks may not have,” Harmon said. “These are things you have to have to be employed — you have to rent a place and try and purchase a car.”

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

Harmon actively pursued partnerships with second-chance employers, allowing eligible inmates to work in the community during the day and save money through a structured contract. This approach provides practical job experience and a source of income and instills a sense of responsibility and accountability.

Several inmates have been hired by second-chance employers and go to work in the community during the day. They have a contract requiring them to save money and are drug tested. They even partner with the bank to help them build savings accounts. Some inmates who aren’t work-eligible yet work in the facility’s laundry room or kitchen. 

With the support of a dedicated team, Harmon and the Warren County Jail are actively transforming lives, one step at a time. 

“It takes a lot of folks to make this place run, and certainly, I couldn’t do anything without a great staff,” Harmon said. “All of them together were able to make some big strides.”

Governor Beshear highlighted that this year, the employment rate among those released from state incarceration has reached 57%, compared to 49% four years ago. Harmon’s emphasis on equipping inmates with life skills and providing them with second-chance employment opportunities has contributed to that shift. 

“In our business, sometimes you have to dig for the positive,” Harmon said. “ You have to dig a little deeper than in some other professions to find what keeps you going and motivating you. For me, I find it in the reentry efforts.” GN

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