Heather Desenberg has taken over as the new Kosciusko County Work Release director. Desenberg plans to bring her administrative background and her open-minded thinking to help the inmates succeed in the real world. Photo by Amanda Bridgman, Times-Union.
Heather Desenberg has taken over as the new Kosciusko County Work Release director. Desenberg plans to bring her administrative background and her open-minded thinking to help the inmates succeed in the real world. Photo by Amanda Bridgman, Times-Union.
There’s a new director for the county’s work release program and she’s hoping her outlook means the days of just housing someone are long gone.

Heather Desenberg stepped into the role Jan. 1 and brings with her a marketing and public relations background – not law enforcement.

She’s 51 years old, graduated from Warsaw Community High School in 1988 and from Franklin College in 1992. She’s been married for 25 years to her husband, Louis, and they have two adult daughters in college.

Desenberg has used her degree in marketing and public relations by handling marketing at DePuy. She’s also worked at WCHS in the attendance office and, prior to her coming to the county, she was the human resource manager at Flexaust.

So how did she wind up as the director of the county’s work release center that houses nearly 100 inmates from the county jail in an old hotel on East Center Street?

It’s all thanks to that little program the county has come to know as JCAP (Jail Chemical Addiction Program).

“I actually worked with (JCAP coordinator) Courtney Jenkins. She contacted me while I was at Flexaust,” Desenberg said. Desenberg became one of the many volunteers JCAP uses to help provide education and resources to inmates upon their release.

For Desenberg, that was helping teach inmates at Kosciusko County Jail how to interview for a job, write a resume and things of that nature.

“I’m trying to take a page from JCAP and bring that in here,” Desenberg said. “Work release is a step from the jail, so you step out to work release, then you step out to community corrections, so what I want to try to do is focus on the inmates ... and do whatever we can in helping them find jobs, helping them find the tools to be successful when they’re out, helping them to transition back into the real world with tools so they don’t return.”

Desenberg’s experiences with JCAP students taught her a lot, she said.

“One of the things I did at Flexaust is, we hired felons,” she said. “We were one of the companies that first started hiring them. The difference to me was they can still do a job. Just because you erred doesn’t mean you can’t. Everybody needs a second chance, and at Flexaust that was one of our things that we tried to do.”

Desenberg then pulled a picture off the corkboard she has in her new office of the first men’s JCAP graduating class. She said, “See these guys? We hired him, him, hired him, hired him, hired him. ... If you break the cycle, people can lead good lives.”

Believing in the inmates at work release isn’t the only way she’s trying to empower them. She believes that when they leave to go to work they should be told to “have a good day,” when they return they should be asked, “how was your day?” and when they complete milestones like an inmate who recently (and finally) successfully completed her GED, those things ought to be celebrated.

“This needs to become a building of trust. This is no longer jail,” Desenberg said. “We need to trust that they’re gonna do the right thing when we send them out, because for us, it’s a stepping stone. ... I have said a number of times to a number of people that I feel like everybody here is starving for attention, and I’m new, and they all know I’m not in law enforcement, so I think that’s the first time a civilian has done this position, and I think that’s good.”

She said some of the inmates at work release have told her that coming to work release is stricter than jail. Desenberg found herself asking “why” a lot since she started, she said, questioning the rules, questioning why this or that isn’t allowed.

One example of that is allowing men to have beards. She told a story about an inmate who came to her and asked if the men could have beards. In jail they can, in work release they cannot.

“So I said OK, if you want this, you have to own it, too. So we met the last two afternoons and discussed here’s what he wants to see in a policy,” she said. “He researched what he wanted, he came up with three consequences if you don’t keep your beard clean and shaven, and so he is owning it.”

She said she’ll type up the proposed policy and that inmate will be responsible for taking it around to the other inmates and bringing it back to her with signatures that they all agree.

“Now is that something he can put on a resume and say, well, I got a beard policy at the work release? No. But it is something he owned and I say, you have an opinion, let’s go with it.”

There are plenty of rules, however, and some will not change and some new rules will be introduced.

For starters, to be accepted to the program you can’t be a violent felon or a pedophile. The curfew is 10 p.m. for lights out unless you’re working at your job, and all food and hygiene products are still bought from commissary.

A new rule that will be introduced is drug testing, especially after an inmate there recently overdosed and was hospitalized for it. That inmate is now back in KCJ serving out his sentence.

But those missteps don’t dissuade Desenberg.

“You know, this will sound cliché, but it’s been kind of what your parents teach you, leave it better than you found it. I think that’s one of my strengths,” she said. “And I can do that. I think I’ve worked with enough people in the community that we can make good change here, and if that’s gonna be one inmate at a time, fix an opioid problem that we have here or a drinking and driving problem because we give them an extra 20 minutes a day to just talk about what we did in the past and say, you know what, that’s over, more forward. I think that’s important and honest to God, it’s truly JCAP changing people. If you think (the inmates) can’t change your life, that’s wrong. Just because you sit in a chair, you know, they taught me more in however many weeks it was than I’ve learned in a long time, and I think that’s important.”

Looking around her office, Desenberg knows she’s in the right place.

“There’s a reason I’m here, because if you’ve have told me even in June, I mean, I had a really nice job and had gotten to that point where you could kind of sit back and cruise. Sometimes, I think, you get put places. That people put you there,” she said. “I don’t leave at night until I go in both day rooms, until I say goodbye. ... This is home, but it’s not home, we’re kind of a pass through. This is their family right now. It’s a community effort to fix people, all of us have to be on board, and if we do it, it will make changes. For me, I won’t preach to you. I bring a different approach because I don’t know law enforcement, I don’t know the way everybody else talks to them because they’ve been there. I’m just gonna tell you what I think and treat them like my own kids.”