(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
The Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook reached an unofficial milestone recently, admitting its 1,000th offender since the doors to "Don't Look Back" and "Second Chances" opened in April 2001.
The 1,000th offender, 21-year-old Benjamin "Ben" Manley of Omaha, realizes the work ethic camp is his second chance, and he is very grateful for the opportunity to learn how to move beyond a lifestyle that has put him at odds with the law since he was 11 years old.
Manley was into drugs, and he was found guilty of theft by receiving stolen property. "I wasn't working," he said. "That was part of the problem. I had no work skills. I never had a job. I didn't want a job."
He wasn't just running with a bad crowd. "I was the bad crowd," Manley admits.
This last charge wasn't his first offense. "I've been in prison before," Manley said. He was 11 years old when he spent his first time in prison. Subsequent offenses -- not all felonies -- landed him in jail in more than one Midwest state.
There were adults in his life, Manley said, but no consequences for his actions. "There was no discipline for nothing I did," he said. "I acted out to get attention."
He continued, "I was bad. And I didn't want help."
He lowered his head, speaking softly, "Life didn't exist for me. It didn't matter if it went on ... or ended."
But that life was getting old, and tiresome, Manley said; he knew he wanted something to change. He'd finally met someone who meant the world to him and they'd gotten married. He had a little boy from a previous relationship. And he and Natasha were expecting a new baby.
"I wanted to change for myself," he said. "But I also wanted to change for Natasha, and for my daughter and my son." Chance is 3 1/2 years old; Elena was born just nine days before her daddy reported to the work camp. She's 2 1/2 months old.
"Natasha has stuck by me," Manley said. He said he wants to be there for his children.
It was Manley's probation officer who recommended the work camp experience rather than prison -- again. "I was all for trying to get away from drugs, to improve myself and my life. I'd lived that life for so long ... it took a toll on my body. I didn't want to live that life no more," Ben said softly, slowly, deliberately. "The probation officer thought I deserved a second chance, that the work camp would be more beneficial for me than prison."
"I'm grateful I got locked up," Manley said. The work camp has forced him to focus on the changes he needs to make to live a clean life on the outside.
He's taking classes to help him deal with his substance abuse. In a class called "Bridges to Freedom," Manley said, he's learning that he has to change for himself. "I can't change for someone else who might fail me and I'd go back to the same ol' thing," he said.
In a program called "Thinking for a Change," Manley said, he's learned to think before acting. "It's given me a new perspective on life," he said.
"Bridges" also teaches offenders job interview techniques and job skills. Manley is convinced that holding down a job will prevent him from re-offending.
WEC Case Worker Kyle Clapp of McCook said Bridges prepares an offender for filling out that job application that asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" or "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
"They have to check the 'felony' box," Clapp said, but it's up to the applicant if he/she wants to include information on his/her work ethic camp experience.
"Part of the Bridges class is helping offenders prepare answers for that question," Clapp said, "helping them take responsibility for their actions." He added, quietly, "They've all had trouble with that question."
Manley said, softly, he has prepared what he will tell a potential employer: "My crime was theft by receiving, and I am ashamed of doing that crime. I have completed the work ethic camp successfully and I am applying for a job to better myself."
Manley said he will not return to Omaha; he wants to move to Lincoln and work in construction. "I've developed some construction skills working on the road crews," Manley said. "It's something I really like."
Clapp said offenders earn the right to work outside the WEC facility in the second phase of their incarceration. "They've proven themselves through Phase I, with no issues inside," he said.
Offenders must apply and be interviewed for road crew positions, Clapp said, just as they would for any job. "It's a privilege to work outside," he said.
Manley said that on road crews, he has picked up trash for the City of McCook, built bikes and trikes for the McCook Toy Box, worked at Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park in North Platte and helped McCook Public Schools relocate classrooms from East Ward and modular buildings into the new McCook Elementary facility.
His greatest joy, he said, was helping hang siding on the "Habitat for Humanity" house in McCook. "That was the coolest thing I've ever done," Manley said, a shy smile curling up the corners of his lips, his dark brown eyes sparkling. "People volunteering ... helping each other ... that's really cool."
Some of that enthusiasm ... a job he can feel good about ... taking care of his family -- these are the components that are getting Manley focused inside, and those that will keep him focused in the outside world after the work ethic camp.
Like every other offender, Manley knows that prison is inevitable if he screws up at the work camp. But that threat of prison time doesn't hold Manley prisoner -- as calloused and cliché as it sounds, he's "been there -- done that."
It will be a meaningful job, his wife, his young son, his new baby daughter -- and his newly-developed work ethic -- that Manley can focus on if-and-when temptation rears its ugly head outside.
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