In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States in years, a group of inmates at the Walton County Jail in Florida have volunteered to clear roadways and clean debris, all while showing their community they are in the relief efforts together.
With winds reaching a terrifying 155 mph, Michael made landfall on Wednesday afternoon and left a path of destruction in its wake. At least 13 people have died so far throughout Florida, Virginia and Georgia, and the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days. Millions of residents are still without power, including 495,000 in North Carolina, according to CNN.
Rescue and clean up efforts are still underway, and photographs of the aftermath showed entire neighborhoods decimated by the storm.
At Florida’s Walton County Jail, inmates have a chance to enter several vocational programs, one of which includes a heavy machinery operator class. So when officials asked five members of the class if they would like volunteer to help out in clean up efforts after the storm, they rose to the occasion.
“Despite being incarcerated, they are still a part of this community. When they get out of jail, they’re still going to be part of their community,” Corey Dobridnia, PIO of Walton County Sheriff’s Office, tells PEOPLE.
She continues: “They’re going to return to their community. It’s imperative that they feel like they’re still involved, that they’re still participating.”
On Thursday and Friday, the inmates, along with other deputies, hit the rural roads around Walton to clear out trees and downed power lines. They faced hot temperatures, spurred on by the humidity of the area, for nearly eight hours each day.
“These guys don’t have to do this, they’re not told to do it,”, Dobridnia, 31, says, before adding that the inmates’ efforts may help them shorten their sentence. “They don’t have to be out on roadways with chainsaws and things like that — it’s not anything they don’t offer to do.”
Walton County, fortunately, was spared the worst of the devastation, Dobridnia says, but their work will be meaningful to the numerous residents who live many miles away from the city.
Thanks to the newfound skills they acquired while in jail — a place that may not typically come to mind for new learning experiences — these inmates were able to become a productive part of the clean-up.
“My sheriff believes in reducing recidivism and getting people in a position where they can graduate from jail and not just get out of jail,” Dobridnia says. “They’re going to re-enter the community, and eventually, they’re going to be part of the community. I just want people to see that not only are they volunteering, but there is a recovery process that needs to happen for them.”
Dobridnia hopes other jails around the country see the benefit of such programs.
“We’re not just throwing them in jail and letting them sit there, they want to be engaged in their community, they want to do better,” she adds. “I think this just shows that.”