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MAURY COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – A controversial program at the Maury County jail is now on hold after an inmate was caught smuggling drugs and tobacco into the facility.

The program is called Church Work Release, and it allows inmates to leave the jail and go to church, wearing civilian clothes with no one guarding them.

News 2 has obtained surveillance photos that show prisoners leaving the jail and walking around one of the participating churches. In the photos, the men are dressed in street clothes and there is no one supervising them.

Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland told News 2 the program is designed to help inmates cope with being on the outside.

“There are folks back here who are rotten to the core, and they are where they need to be, but there are folks who in days are going to be released, and I want to make sure we do all we can,” he explained.

In 2014, Sheriff Rowland ran on a campaign of prisoner rehabilitation. By December 2016, Rowland had initiated the Church Work Release program.  The program is described by the department as a religious-based work re-entry program.

“Inmates are checked out by spiritual mentors who have been vetted through our jail chaplain and have been volunteers in our facility as mentors or program leaders and has completed TCI training for volunteers,” Rowland said.

He continued, “Our goal here at the Maury County Sheriff’s Department, whether on the street or in the jail, is to reduce recidivism, to leave folks better than we found them.”

From December 2016 until this past June, the department said 75 prisoners have been released from the Maury County jail and taken to a half dozen participating churches.

“I believe they truly want a change in their life,” the sheriff told News 2.

The inmates are not under guard and they are not accompanied by an armed deputy. Instead, Rowland said the inmates are escorted by a spiritual mentor who has taken some state sponsored corrections courses.

“We are trying to make a safer community,” Rowland said.

Most of the offenders in the church program have been locked up multiple times and many have serious felony records that include drug offenses, assaults and burglaries.

Sheriff Rowland maintains there are many good people in his jail.

“We will invest in them to change that way of thinking,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people in this jail – they are good folks. They have addiction problems, drugs or alcohol. They get clean, and they say they don’t want to be here, I’m not coming back. I think they truly want a change in their life, and I believe it starts here.”

According to Sheriff Rowland, to qualify for his program, the inmates must be near the end of their sentences and have no disciplinary issues.

The sheriff also said the program was temporarily suspended after one inmate, Forrest Voorhees, went to church and was then caught smuggling drugs and tobacco in the jail.

News 2 asked the sheriff if it is wise to allow hardcore criminals to roam free and sit in church with parishioners who don’t always know they’re seated next to inmates.

“We have a concern for citizens 24/7/365,” Rowland said. “These are the same people you will stand in line at Walmart or Kroger, or anywhere else.”

He added, “They are going to church with sinners. You can imagine that these people are going to church with other sinners.”

When asked if church members are told the inmates are among them during worship services, the sheriff said, “They are not going to have the corrections facilities or the officers for a deputy there with them in 60 days.”

Sheriff Rowland stands behind his program and said it is safe.

“Well, you can tell them they are in jeopardy. I don’t think they are. We don’t let people in for violent offenses. They are not available for this program,” he explained, adding, “We won’t put the public at risk. We are trying to make a safer community by investing in programs like this. We turn them out with a mentor that they built relations with that has gone through training. They know what to do if there are problems.”

With practically no supervision, News 2 also asked Sheriff Rowland if he’s concerned about inmates obtaining drugs and bringing them back into the jail.

“You show me a jail or prison that doesn’t have contraband in it because I want to see it,” he said. “That is what we deal with. That’s what every sheriff in this country deals with. It’s nothing new.”

When told his department is unusual, Sheriff Rowland said, “Not every sheriff is willing to take and put themselves out there to reduce recidivism to try and impact these folks’ life in a positive way.”

The sheriff told News 2 of the 52 inmates who have received their high school GEDs, only six have reoffended.

Despite his stance on the programs, News 2 also spoke to citizens in the town square who were not as convinced.

“It is very scary,” said seven-year Maury County resident, Terri Anderson. “They shouldn’t be allowed to be amongst other people. They have church in the jail. I don’t know why they should be allowed to sit with other people in a church setting.”

When asked if she was concerned about her safety, Anderson said, “That is unspeakable and they are going into church and nobody is watching them. If they are offenders, we have a right to know they live next to us, and they let them go to church without them understanding they are coming from a jail sentence I fear for everyone who goes to church with the assault charges and everything mentioned.”

Maury County resident, Karen Rising, a grandmother and church-goer said she feels similarly.

“Someone should be with them,” she said. “Fine, they go to church. Let’s face it, they broke the law and someone should be supervising. I would not want my family sitting next to a convicted felon. When they get out, will they be going to church? If they are out on their own they know where to get the drugs.”