Tyler Spencer has been in and out of the McPherson County jail a handful of times, yet this time is different.

Editor’s Note — This article is the last of four in a series about life at the McPherson County jail. It focuses on factors affecting the recidivism rate from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Vera Institute, inmates and local corrections officers.

Tyler Spencer has been in and out of the McPherson County jail a handful of times, yet this time is different.

“Before, I was just here to get through my time and get back to my life. A lot of people just come in to sit and read books or watch TV, but this time I came and turned myself in. I knew whatever I had to do in here, I would come out different,” Spencer said. “I was just sitting back there wasting time instead of using it. Something had to be different, or I’d continue on that cycle.”

Spencer is one of thousands of Americans caught in a cycle of release and rearrest, but that awareness is what drives his pursuit of a better path.

“For me, jail not a place I want to be. A lot of guys keep coming in on their same charges, just to do their time, instead of using that time to transform,” Spencer explained. “You don’t realize how many hours there are in a day until you come here, and then you spend those hours doing nothing. I wanted to transform those hours into something productive.”

On any given day in the U.S., there are 731,000 people sitting in more than 3,000 jails. However, nearly 70 percent of inmates released were rearrested within three years of release, reports the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Measuring recidivism rates can be tricky, as researchers use different parameters, such as counting arrests or only counting sentences served, but the numbers still demonstrate that staying out of jail isn’t that easy.

McPherson Police Cpt. Arlo Blevins, McPherson County Jail Administrator, explained that recidivism rates both trouble and encourage his work in improving futures for McPherson County Inmates.

“The sheriff and I want to provide things to get people started on the right track, but you can’t always start something until you find someone to come in and do it,” Blevins said about providing GED or vocational training. “But just as you get started, the inmate might bond out and they won’t finish since stays here are much shorter than in a state prison.”

Despite the country growing safer — with violent crime down 49 percent from more than 20 years ago — annual admissions to jails nearly doubled between 1983 and 2013 to 11.7 million, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. More people are ending up in jail today than 30 years ago, partially because jails primarily house those awaiting trial or who are too poor to bond out. Some serve sentences there, but few inmates stay at the McPherson County jail for longer than six to eight months.

Corporal Melissa Schamp, who covers the day shift in the McPherson County jail men’s housing unit, explained that though stays at the jail are short, the combined time can add up.

“A lot of the repeats are drug offenders or they had parole violations. I wish them good luck and tell them I hope I won’t see them again, but something always happens,” Schamp said. “It’s frustrating because I know they have the potential to be good, but the people they hang around when they get out don’t help. Some almost want to come back because they feel safe here; then they’re away from the people who get them in trouble.”

For those like Jimmy Wilson, McPherson County jail correctional officer and McPherson College strength and conditioning coach, that support group can mold a life in a positive direction before it’s too late. If it weren’t for a few of his role models, Wilson could have ended up on the other side of the bars.

“Growing up, there was a lot of crime and gang violence in Oakland [California]. I lost a lot of friends to the violence on the street and I feel that if we had more officers on the street then we could be around those situations,” Wilson explained. “I believe that if anyone has a strong role model in their life, they’ll learn from that person and do the same, whether its a good role model or a bad one. My uncle is a correctional officer, and I started playing football because of my dad, and that’s what kept me off the streets and kept me occupied. I’m blessed to be where I’m at.”

Now, Wilson uses his positive attitude to model a healthy mindset for those around him.

“Some days, people are feeling depressed, so when I’m doing my rounds and see someone pacing, I’ll stop by and talk to them. Later, some tell me ‘hey, I really needed that.’ What makes me happy is making other people happy,” Wilson said. “If you’re positive, it makes every situation that much better. If you’re negative it won’t change things. I want to give 110 percent every day, because I know there’s always someone out there counting on me to do my job.”

This positivity — treating those how you’d want to be treated — seems to go a long way in the county jail.

“It helps a lot when you feel like they’re not just here to abuse their power, and they treat you like a person and try to get you through what you’re going through,” Spencer said. “You wouldn’t think of us in here having emotions, since we’re supposed to just be these criminals, but we go through a lot mentally in here so it’s nice to have an outlet to get some of that off. It’s difficult to know that life is happening outside and you don’t have any control over it, so it helps when you can get a perspective from someone who can go back and forth. The officers know what’s going on outside, but they also know about what it’s like in here, so they can find a medium for you.”

Inmates may face steeper obstacles in smaller communities, simply because there are fewer people and less chance of breaking out of groups.

“Smaller towns like McPherson are a kind of a black hole you get caught in because you can’t go back to that same friend group once you get out of here,” Spencer explained. “It’s difficult for people who grew up here and don’t know anyone else, so even if they do have intentions to take a different lifestyle, they can’t take themselves out of those situations. Family and friends can make that difference because they’re the ones who want to see you do better and care about your wellbeing.”

Although most defendants admitted to jail are released within hours or days, even a short stay in jail can have severe consequences. Research from the Vera Institute shows that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of primarily low-risk defendants who enter them — making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system.

However, the support of family and friends can spark the shift in mindset that Spencer is working through now. He explained that seeing the stress on his family, including on his young daughter, encouraged him to think outside his situation.

“I stopped blaming them for everything and took it on myself. When I came in these doors, I knew it would have to be different or I’d end up like one of these old guys who talk about their kids who are now my age, and I couldn’t think about missing all that with my daughter,” Spencer said. “I don’t want her to see me like this and it just breaks my heart to see the effect it has on her. It’s selfish to continue to do it. You can’t expect everything around you to change without changing that mindset.”

The National Institute of Justice reports that only 56 percent of offenders did not recidivate within three years, which gives an inmate a 50/50 chance of returning to jail.

Perhaps the best solution to keeping individuals out of the cycle would be to keep them from entering it at all.

Pretty soon, Spencer will be on the outside. He explained that instead of returning to the same old routine, he’ll take small steps on the path to supporting others.

“My girlfriend suggested that I start taking some college classes, probably in psychology. I think that maybe I could help targeting kids with social issues. I think that instead of trying to work with people who have put themselves in jail, it’s more important to catch them at a younger age where they can still change easily,” Spencer said. “The molding of a child is more important than trying to whip an adult into shape.”