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Preparing for the future

Sheriff Chris Newton and Jami Fox stand in the lobby of the Huntington County Jail.
Sheriff Chris Newton and Jami Fox stand in the lobby of the Huntington County Jail. Photo by Joseph Slacian

It’s safe to say, Jami Fox knows of what she speaks. And it is for that reason that Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton brought her on the department staff at the beginning of the year

“Old jail construction was meant for small term housing,” Newton said. “We weren’t meant to keep people for longer periods of time.”

The passage of House Bill 1006 a few years ago forced Huntington County, along with all many counties around the state, to take a close look at the use of their existing jail space. The bill changed the sentencing structure for those convicted of felonies.

Basically, the people who used to have drug charges who used to go to prison now stay more often in your local jail,” Newton said. “So when that happened, our jail population went up like everyone else’s. We started thinking jail population is going to increase and we know we’re going to have these people here for a longer period of time, especially those with substance abuse.

“When they go to prison, they have the opportunity to go to classes if they want to. We weren’t built for that. We were basically holding cells. We didn’t have classrooms.”

That started a conversation with Newton and the Huntington County Council and County Commissioners.

“Our jail is old like a lot of places,” Newton said, noting officials opted to keep the existing structure rather than build a whole new jail. “We added on to our jail. We went from a 99 bed facility to a 233 bed facility. That includes the old jail. We have totally remodeled the old side of the jail. But we also added classrooms. We have classrooms on the old side of the jail, and the new side of the jail we also have a classroom.”

Newton wanted to add various classes, such as Bible classes, recovery classes, life skills and more.

“If there’s a class we can bring in, that was the goal,” the sheriff said. “I also knew with my jail staff, there was no way we would be able to run a program like that. You have to have someone who has the time and the dedication to put classes like that together. Just coordinating with all the different organizations in a community is a lot.”

And that’s where Fox comes in. She joined the department in January and is in charge of coordinating and overseeing the various classes.

Fox is no stranger to the Huntington County Jail and the judicial system.

“Long story short, I myself, am a recovering addict,” she told The Tab during a meeting in Newton’s office. “I’ve been in and out of addiction for 20 years. I’ve been in and out of jail, in and out of prison, in and out of rehabs. I’ve done rehab in prison.

“I went through my recovery process about five years ago. After being in recovery, the sheriff called me and said, ‘I want you to come down and talk to me.’ He wanted me to take what I’ve learned in my recovery and bring it down here.

“I started teaching an addiction class in the jail. I really wanted to help these women, not only while they’re here but when they’re released. I started doing research and bringing in applications to recovery homes and any resources that they needed.”

Fox’s past didn’t deter Newton. Actually, it made him want to hire her even more.

“I watched her really mature into a woman from where she once was,” Newton said. “She is trusted, not just in this jail, but in the community. I talked with different organizations, the mayor’s office, anyone that has a say so stake inside this building: what’s the best for here. It’s not just what I want, it’s what’s the best for here. We want people not to come back.”

Fox said she was excited when the sheriff reached out to her about the program.

“I was excited because I knew what was needed,” she said. “Five or six years ago, I was in this jail on criminal charges. I was in here for six months, and when I got out … I went in in June and I was a size two. I got out in November and the shorts I wore in June did not even fit, and it was cold out. I literally left in my jail sweats and had nowhere to go. They opened the door and said, ‘Good luck,’ and by noon, I was high again.

“I don’t want that for any other inmate. I don’t want them to be let out these doors and say, ‘Hey, good luck.’ I want them to have a purpose and a place to go. Their change starts in here.”

Newton said, “For anybody who would say, ‘Why Jami? Why somebody that went through recovery and had all these criminal charges?’ For me, it is a very simple answer. Everybody has a place … we all have a place. But to have someone who has been down that road and who has walked that path and who has lost a lot, then to turn around and gained everything back. She now has a fulltime job at the same place she was at. I think the trust starts back there. I think having somebody like Jami who has obviously been there, that trust is built in here.

“That’s why, for me, it was important to have somebody here they can trust. If they have somebody in here they can trust and can say, ‘Hey, look where I was,’ there’s no B.S. Don’t tell me something that I already did, a path that I already walked. Jami can call that.”

Fox said she became determined to straighten her life out because she was tired of her addiction.

“I was just tired of living that life,” she said. “Literally, I was done. I was over it. Half of my family didn’t even speak to me anymore. My mom didn’t even want me in her house. My kids really didn’t want to have a lot to do with me.

“My son followed my footsteps in addiction. Thank God he followed me out, too. He’s sober now. I was just tired of living that life. I knew that wasn’t me, and something had to change.”

Regaining her sobriety, she admits, was rough.

“I was stubborn,” she said. “I wanted to do it my way. I wanted to do what I wanted. Some people say they were raised like that. I wasn’t raised like that. I had a good family. I just chose to do bad on my own. I just wanted my family back, really.”

Once she completed her program and became sober, she became set on helping others.

“I know the way,” she said. “Come with me; I’ll show you. I will help you. I did it; you can do it. I was probably one of Huntington’s worst criminals, drug dealer. They wanted me off the streets. They wanted to put me in prison the rest of my life. … I chose recovery.”

Fox also admits that though she is a recovered addict, it can still be a struggle.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” she said. “It’s always in your mind. It’s just how I think about it these days. It’s different. It’s not a want. It’s why I don’t do that anymore. Thank God I recovered from it.”

Since becoming sober, Fox has become a peer recovery coach, a certified recovery specialist, has attended a Bible college, and has gone through jail officer training, complete with tasing and macing.

“When we tell people we’re here to help them, we’re not saying that just because we feel like we have to say that,” Newton said. “The general premise is that is what we’re here for. Policing has changed from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. We don’t to see people in jail all the time. Certainly, there’s a time and a place that that’s where you need to be. But, if we can help people, we want them in their homes with their families.”