In the late 1980s, Mike Caron was looking for work as a teacher and ended up in prison.
Caron taught college geography and other courses to inmates at the Kansas men's and women's state prisons in Lansing and the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
Caron, 56, has been working behind bars ever since.
"I had the best teaching experience of my life," the Lawrence resident said. "It was a pleasure to work with inmates who had no self-esteem and watch the light bulb go off in their heads when they realized they could do something on their own."
Since May 2000, Caron has been the programs director at the Douglas County Jail. He recruits, trains and supervises more than 100 community volunteers who work in the jail.
The volunteers conduct programs for the inmates, such as writing classes, tutoring for those seeking high school equivalency diplomas, stress management and even yoga exercises.
Although previous program directors worked at the jail, Caron said he came to the position with ideas about how he wanted to expand the programs.
He said he drew upon his experience as a counselor in Kansas Department of Corrections facilities, his job before coming to Douglas County.
A former Army Green Beret who served in Vietnam, Caron said he also was influenced by his experience as a sponsor of military veterans groups for federal prison inmates.
"It was these kinds of things that led me to understand the role of the volunteers and the impact some of the programs could have providing inmates with basic skills and self-esteem to get a sense their life could go in a different direction," Caron said.
A writing program was one of the first programs established at the Douglas County Jail. Kansas University English assistant professors Kirk Branch and Anna Neill set it up, Caron said. KU graduate students were recruited to help.
Writing is another way for inmates to build confidence in themselves, Caron said. The inmates usually write about their experiences and what got them into trouble, he said. The quality of the inmates' work has surprised him.
"It's a very therapeutic kind of exercise, and it really helps in terms of handling stress in an enclosed environment of a jail," Caron said.
Another program that has attracted the interest of inmates is the jail's version of the public library. Virtually all of the jail's inmates regularly check out books from the library, Caron said.
The volunteers and their programs are an asset to the inmates and to the regular jail staff, Sheriff Rick Trapp said.
"It's just magnificent what he's done with the volunteers and the inmates," Trapp said. "If we can give even a few of the inmates a chance to take what they learn and be successful on the outside, it will be worth it."
Trapp also commended the community for providing the volunteers. Caron agreed.
"Enthusiastic volunteers bring you other enthusiastic volunteers of equal talent," Caron said. "There is a lot of talent in this community."
In the past few months, there was a program to assist inmates who are parents better understand basic parenting and the effects their actions have on their children, Caron said.
In development are programs that will help the mentally ill set up appointments with mental health experts and get medication once they are out of jail.
"With closings of state hospitals and budget cuts, jails all over the country have become almost de facto mental health institutions," Caron said.