Northside grad shares being state’s Deputy of the Year for scared-straight program

bpurser@macon.comAugust 4, 2013 

Lt. Bryan Wood speaks with a participant in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department’s M.A.C.E. Program. M.A.C.E., which stands for Making a Change Early, is a program that lets at-risk teens spend a day in jail to help discourage them from criminal behavior.

SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAPH

WARNER ROBINS -- A Northside High School graduate has been named the 2013 Georgia Sheriffs’ Association Deputy of the Year.

Lt. Bryan Wood, who graduated from Northside High in 1977 and then served more than 20 years in the Navy as a broadcast journalist, and fellow Douglas County sheriff’s Investigator Shay Brooks, share the top deputy honor.

The men are credited with organizing a version of “Beyond Scared Straight,” which airs on A&E. Wood’s mom, Rebecca Wood, lives in Warner Robins and his father-in-law, Bobby Garnto, lives in Centerville. Wood also has family in Crawford County.

The program, called M.A.C.E. for Making a Change Early, gives at-risk youth from ages 13 to 17 a real world experience of a day in jail. The teenagers are nominated by their parents after getting in trouble for gang affiliations, skipping school, running away from home or disrespecting their parents.

The deputies work to make the experience as true to life as possible.

“I’ll give you a glimpse into a crystal ball of what life will be like if you want to maintain the path you are on,” Brooks said he tells the teens. “We’re going to show you the end of the road.”

Brooks, 43, who has been with the sheriff’s office for 20 years, became interested in developing the program after working with teenagers who repeatedly showed up in juvenile court, especially those who were becoming affiliated with gangs. Wood, 54, a jail shift supervisor who’s been with the sheriff’s office nearly 15 years after retiring from the Navy in 1998, was seeing two and three generations of fathers and sons in the jail.

Also, Wood already had started an educational program about the realities of jail, including showing handcuffs and orange jumpsuits to young people and teaching them about the lack of privacy and freedom. When Brooks approached Wood with his idea of creating a version of “Beyond Scared Straight,” Wood was instantly on board.

The deputies received the Deputy of the Year award for contributions to law enforcement July 18 at a sheriff’s conference in Augusta. A similar Deputy of the Year award is also given for valor.

M.A.C.E.

The program, which accepts no more than 10 participants at a time, is held on Fridays at the Douglas County jail. Here’s how it works:

Teenagers arrive with their parents and are then separated from them. The parents go to a classroom where they can vent, share common concerns and receive referrals to various agencies to help them with the individual problems their teens are experiencing.

The teenagers go to jail.

They’re searched for any illegal contraband, ordered to wear a jail jumpsuit and placed in handcuffs and shackles.

“They have to follow the same rules as the inmates do,” Brooks said. “We want them to experience the same thing as inmates. ... We want to make it as real as possible as we can.”

The teenagers are led into the jail where they are yelled at by deputies if they are disrespectful or get out of line. They’re taken into the cell blocks to see how the inmates live and to experience the smells and visual effects of life behind bars.

They interact with inmates who hoot and holler and bang on doors upon their arrival. They eat lunch in a cell -- reminded that they cannot leave and they cannot pick and choose what they get to eat.

The teenagers also hear the stories of those incarcerated. For many inmates, it’s an attempt to clear his or her conscience for crimes committed by attempting to turn away the teens from a path of destruction, Wood said.

An unexpected experience Wood recalled as “pretty emotional” was when a father in jail met up with his son, who was in the program. Neither the boy nor jail staff knew the father was locked up.

Wood recalled how the father looked at his son, shook his head and said, “Son, this is not where you want to be.”

An aspect of the program that is unique, Brooks said, is that deputies interact with the teenagers during 30 to 45 minutes spent in a cell for lunch. The deputies talk to them about issues the teenagers may be facing at home and about why they’re behaving in a way that has landed them in jail for the day. The idea is to build a rapport with the teens, he said.

After lunch, the teenagers are lined up and taken to visitation where they can talk with their parents through a glass window and a telephone just like the inmates.

The experience is often the hardest for the parents because it’s often the first time they’ve seen their child clad in a jail jumpsuit behind bars.

“It helps drive home the point of separation in jail -- that you cannot hug your mom or dad or hold their hand while talking with them,” Brooks said.

The teens are next taken one by one to a small courtroom in the jail before Magistrate Judge Barbara Caldwell. The teens must explain what they’ve learned and why they should be allowed to go home. An unsatisfactory answer or demeanor sends a teen into a holding cell where he or she expects to spend the rest of the weekend in jail.

The motivation among the teenagers at this point is how to please the judge, Brooks said. Those who didn’t make it through the first round go back before the judge. They are released to their parents afterward -- ending the teenager’s day spent in jail.

Measuring success

The program is now in its second year. From its start in March 2012 to March 2013, 110 teenagers have gone through it, Brooks said.

Based on follow-ups with the teenagers and their parents, only seven have been charged with crimes since the program, Brooks said. About a dozen others showed improvement but were still having behavior issues. The remaining teenagers received positive reports, he said.

“We know we’re not going to turn every kid around,” Brooks said. “We know we’re not going save all of them. ... But if we save one from a life of crime and from a life of prison, then we consider the program a success all the way around.”

Wood, who works an extra job as a security officer at a flea market, and Brooks, who also works as a security officer at a mall, often run into the teens after the program while working their other jobs.

“We see these kids all the time,” Brooks said. “It’s amazing -- after going through a dramatic experience as this program -- a young person will come up and shake your hand ... or want to give you a hug.”

Douglas County sheriff’s Maj. Tommy Wheeler, a 35-year veteran of the department, said the program “has meant everything to this administration.” He said there have been calls from parents in others states wanting to know if their child can participate after the M.A.C.E. program was featured on A&E. Wheeler said A&E is returning Friday to film a third segment at the Douglas County jail.

“We’re just awfully proud of both these guys,” Wheeler said. “When you don’t receive the award yourself -- and I haven’t -- it’s like you vicariously receive the award through them.

“It makes everybody up here feel good. This agency is totally behind this program because we see it working. We’re just all for it. We totally believe in it, and we go full board with it,” Wheeler said.

Wood, Brooks and scores of others involved with the program donate their time.

“The award we have received may have our names on it, but we could not make this program work without the volunteers we get from our officers, investigators, the staff here,” Wood said. “It’s been incredible how much help we get -- particularly when nobody gets paid to do this program.

“It’s had an impact on us, and it makes us feel good. It validates the acceptance of the program, and it means the world to the parents of the children who are participating.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service