Kenny KampeterIn Missouri, one skilled nursing center has a different way of interacting with local offenders, with big benefits. Tri-County Care Center is a 90-bed skilled nursing center nestled in Vandalia, a rural community of 2,000 people.
For the past several years, the center has participated in a work release program with the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC), Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, also located in Vandalia. Penny Kampeter has been administrator of Tri-County Care Center for the past 10 years.
“We have girls who are inmates that work here as certified nurse assistants [CNAs],” says Kampeter. “We’ve had the program here for about 18 years.”
The women are inmates who have been sentenced to time at the correctional center. The Offender Work Release Program is designed to be a rehabilitation program for them, says Kampeter. “Those who are working here are maybe passing bad checks, have a driving-while-intoxicated charge, etc. They are nonviolent offenders,” she says.
For the inmates, getting to Tri-County Care Center is a journey in and of itself. To start with, participants must be within two years of completing their sentence. Candidates have prison jobs in offices or in the cafeteria, and, if they do well, they go to the Missouri Department of Transportation. There, they perform tasks such as picking up trash.
Once they complete that step, candidates work at City of Vandalia, mowing the grass, cleaning the parks, and planting flowers.
“Then they get the opportunity to come here,” says Kampeter. “For them, it’s a huge accomplishment to get that far.”
At that point, Tri-County runs background checks, as they do for other prospective employees. “They have to pass all of that; there’s no exception,” says Kampeter.

In Practice

Kampeter says the program has brought nothing but positives. She recalls her first day at Tri-County 10 years ago when the family of a resident pointed out to her just how special it was to them. “They told me, ‘Whatever you do, Penny, please do not lose this work release program, it’s absolutely fantastic,’” Kampeter says.

When asked about how the participants interact with residents, Kampeter says they are great employees. “The families love them, and residents love them,” she says. “It’s hard for us to remember that they are offenders because they are just so much like us. They come here and these residents just give them love, and they love these residents, and there’s structure in their lives.”

Filling A Workforce Gap

Upon successful completion of all requirements, including 75 hours of classroom education, 100 hours of on-the-job training, and passing a test, the program guarantees incentives for both the center and the participants.

For the center, it’s not only a dedicated stream of CNAs (20 out of the center’s 35 full-time CNAs are on the work release program), but more flexibility for other workers. “These ladies work every, they work holidays, and they work weekends,” says Kampeter. “They realize they have a choice: Do you want to be sitting in prison, or do you want to be out here working?” she says.

“It’s just so hard to find CNAs in a rural community like ours. And we are able to offer some of our other CNAs holidays and weekends off. Where else can you do that?”

From a management perspective, “they really are a big part of the success at our center,” Kampeter says. “We don’t pay them unemployment or workers’ compensation. They make $7.65 per hour because that’s what the minimum wage is here in Missouri.”

For the participant, it’s a sense of purpose and tools to help them re-enter society. Kampeter says that participants receive CNA certification, complete with two years of experience, a letter of recommendation from Tri-County, and a salary, which is divided.

“When we send their paycheck to the MDOC, it gets split in three ways. One-third they have to pay rent to the state of Missouri for being in jail, one-third has to go into a savings account, and one-third they are allowed to spend,” she says.

“When their two years are up, they have two years’ experience on their resumes, and they have $10,000 to $12,000 in their savings account,” says Kampeter. “They have an opportunity to get back on their feet.”

A Big Responsibility

The program doesn’t exist without some kind of cost, says Kampeter. Given that the program is classified as “unsupervised work release” by MDOC, there is no MDOC staff person on site to monitor employees; Kampeter takes full responsibility.

“We go to the institution and pick them up and bring them out here for their shift,” she says. “At the end of their shift, we get them back on the van and take them back to the institution.”

Kampeter says her staff must be on their toes. “There are a lot of simple things that aren’t permitted per our agreement, and we need to keep these in mind every day. For example, the inmates can’t take the trash out unsupervised. My staff and I are trained annually by MDOC on all the dos and don’ts.”

One hurdle that Kampeter had to cross was restricting Internet access on the computers to access electronic health records. “I had to make adjustments for security since the inmates cannot access the Internet. So we made those and must always have Internet security in place,” she says.

The staff also teach an on-site CNA class and help teach another class at the MDOC facility. Inmates come to Tri-County to do their on-the-job training and testing.

Another hindrance is the exclusion of gifts. No one is allowed to give the inmates special tokens of appreciation, says Kampeter. “If someone’s daughter loves Suzy and wants to bring her a milkshake, you can’t do that.

“We just have to remind ourselves that they are offenders, and we can’t let our guard down. In all the years that I have been here we have never had anyone try to do anything wrong,” she says.

Success On The Other Side

Tri-County has yet to employ a CNA who has gone through their program, but Kampeter says that’s largely due to the program design, which brings inmates originally from other parts of the state to work in Vandalia. Similarly, inmates originally from Vandalia would go somewhere else to receive training.

“I would hire every last one of them if I could,” says Kampeter. She has never run into opposition from residents or staff about the program. “It’s accepted in our community and well-known,” she says.

“We actually wish they could be here longer. That is just the way the program is structured, it allows more people like them to be rehabbed.”

If ever given the opportunity to do a similar program, providers should take it, Kampeter says. Reflecting on the program during her 10 years at Tri-County, she says it could not have gone any smoother.

“I’m very proud that I’ve been able to maintain it. It’s a win-win situation, that’s the best way to describe it. There’s a lot of regulations you have to go through, but that’s just the case with everything in long term care.”