Sarah Scarbrough at Richmond City Justice Center

Sarah Scarbrough, founder and director of  The Real Program

Sarah Scarbrough, founder and director of The Real Program

Sarah Scarbrough received an enthusiastic nomination from a former colleague named Chelsea Wlodarek. Chelsea knows first hand how The Real Program is working and had this to say about Sarah, REAL's founder:

Sarah is a one of a kind person with the biggest heart of anyone I know. She is the internal director of programs at the Richmond City Justice Center. She spends her days giving offenders another chance. She created the REAL program; Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles, which helps RCJC residents learn skills to succeed after their release. Many of the residents look to her as their "mom," she loves them like she loves her own children. She learns from the residents like they learn from her. She wants these individuals to come back into our society as better citizens. I don't know anyone like her - She gets up every day and GOES to jail and helps those that some people think aren't worth helping. I think because of her actions, she makes RVA a better place to live.

When I asked Sarah where we should meet for the High Five, she said I should come to the Richmond City Justice Center. I will admit, I had no idea where or what that might be. As I pulled in I realized I was at the city jail. "Is this jail," I asked, once I got in. "It's the Richmond City Justice Center," she answered. In the sheriff's office there was an architecture's rendering of a building. "Is this an aerial view of the new jail that we are standing in?" "It's our Justice Center," Sarah said.

Spending even a little bit of time with Sarah made it obvious that she's focused on all that is possible--human potential, positive outcomes in terrible situations, using the justice center as a launch pad for productive and happy lives, and finding and recognizing worth in everyone. It was an honor to meet her today. Here's what she has to say about her work in the world.

H5RVA:  How did you get involved in offender rehabilitation and addiction recovery?

Sarah: In 2008, years ago I was exploring dissertation topics for my PhD at VCU – At that time, I was also a legislative assistant for VA State Senator Walter Stosch.  During the General Assembly session, John Shinholser of the McShin Foundation walked into my office – lobbying for a legislation he was supporting.

He and I started chatting about my upcoming dissertation - and he told me about a program he started in the Richmond City Jail – McCovery – he was working on the worst housing unit, or tier, of the jail delivering a peer-based model program for recovery. John wanted someone to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.  My interest was sparked and I took the bait.

Within a week, I was sitting in Sheriff Woody’s office pitching the idea for the study. He gave me permission to enter his jail and research the men who were part of the program.

For 4 years, I was given unprecedented access to the jail and the men of the program.

Going into the jail for the first time – well, let’s just say I was a nervous wreck! As young woman - entering a tier full of violent addicts – I certainly was intimidated! I am not sure what I expected, but I was astonished to be received by a well-mannered and respectful group of men.

My experience on the tier ignited my passion for recovery and fueled my research in the Richmond City Jail. Fast forward 8 years and here I am, in my dream job, able to come to work each day to do what I love for a wonderful boss, supporter, and mentor, Sheriff C.T. Woody, Jr.

H5RVA: How long is the list of things you have learned while teaching?

Sarah: I don’t think I could even count that high. Really, I strive to come to work to make an impact…if I can affect just one life, I feel as if something great has been accomplished. However, what I gain each and every day is more than I believe I can ever give.

As I embarked on my study, I had a fairly conservative view on the topic. I did not understand the disease of addiction. And, I didn’t realize how hard it was for an addict to say “no” or how easy it is to slip back into their old ways. Additionally, I was unaware of the amount of criminal activity that is predicated upon substance use and addiction. That knowledge quickly changed and a better understanding arose.

From there, the growth and understanding of the reasons people offend, why they continue to offend, why programming does and doesn’t work, the barriers to a successful re-entry back into the community, etc. is understood greater and greater each day I work inside the walls of the jail.

H5RVA: In a nutshell, if that is possible, what is the impact of recidivism in Virginia? On an individual and their family?

Sarah: It’s not measurable. It costs us more money than anything else. We spend about $30,000 annually to incarcerate ONE person. That adds up – and then you consider the recidivism rate for people – the $$ continue to sky rocket. Not only that, but the toll it takes on the community – from the victim, to safety, vandalism, poverty, lack of education, people not paying taxes, a hurting work force, children in foster care, unwed mothers, teen pregnancy, STDs, mental health illnesses, addiction, fatherless homes, depression – need I continue? But all of these items are directly related to incarceration, and therefore recidivism, because the cycles just continue! And they will continue on and on if something isn’t done and if an intervention isn’t put in place.

H5RVA: What's the biggest challenge for recently released offenders?

Sarah: Everything. Society isn’t waiting for someone to be released. They actually put up almost every wall possible. Everyone knows the big obstacles – jobs and housing… and they are among the largest contributors leading to recidivism. However, what about transportation, addiction, housing locations (if they do have housing, most often it is in crime and drug ridden areas), modes of communication (without a phone, what phone number do people list for job call backs), food, clothing, and dealing with kids who are getting in trouble or relatives who are using drugs. Truly, the list just goes on and on.

H5RVA: How can a community help?

Sarah: As a response to the continued barriers to re-entry, we created a non-profit called REAL Life, which is the continued support for folks coming out of the Richmond City Justice Center. Clearly re-entry assistance is provided largely by financially supporting folks and through volunteerism.  More can be found at

Our internal programs in the RCJC are also supported strongly by volunteers.

Interested parties are welcome to contact me if they are interested!

Sarah can be found at

Amy McCracken