While not typically a place of celebration, the mood represented at the prison Tuesday night was that of accomplishment as the inmates were congratulated on completing their month in the program, which began on Aug. 17.
The graduates were all smiles as they accepted certificates of completion.
There was no evidence of cliques or animosity toward the system that night as inmates applauded each other on their accomplishments and shared their testimonies on how the program enriched their lives. They talked about finally being provided with a road map that will help guide them on the outside and about the powerful messages they received that inspired them to improve their lives.
One of the most powerful messages came from the testimony of a father who helped his son navigate life after prison with the help of the Re-Entry program. The son shared his testimony soon after, and the room became fraught with emotion as father and son embraced — a clear indication of how much the program helped them overcome their barriers.
At the end of the ceremony, the inmates gathered to take a group photo with the graduation speakers. Although receiving their certificate signified the end of their time in the program, it also marked the start of what they hope to accomplish once they leave their lives behind the prison walls.
The in-house program began in March, and a ceremony for the first graduating class was held April 20. The Georgia Department of Corrections chooses the inmates who participate in the program.
Robert Jackson, director of the local NAACP chapter’s Re-Entry Services, said most participants enter the program when they are down to 90 days before their release.
The non-profit program works in conjunction with local businesses, Carroll County, the city of Carrollton and other local stakeholders. It is designed to set up a smooth transition from prison back into the community.
“It is designed to enlighten them on the issues and concerns that they have coming out of prison,” he said.
Those issues include chemical abuse, transportation, family problems, housing, clothing, medical needs, education and employment. The program also teaches them about relationship development and life skills.
The program brought in probation and parole officers to talk to inmates about living under supervision. A Walmart manager spoke about employment, while a bank employee taught inmates about money management. A professor from West Georgia Technical College discussed education opportunities with the inmates.
Tracy Wilson, a licensed professional counselor, spoke to the inmates about conflict resolution.
“We talked about reuniting with their families and what it’s like to kind of go back into the family and being an active part of a family that’s been without your presence for a while,” she said.
She feels the Re-Entry program is beneficial in putting inmates back to work and getting them back on track through ensuring they have resources available to them when they leave prison.
“They don’t always know where to start, so this kind of gives them a starting point,” she said.
Representatives from various other agencies were brought to in discuss issues ranging from veterans affairs to child support.
Blue Cole, coordinator of the Carroll County Child Support Problem Solving Court, spoke to the inmates about a range of issues which included child support basics and information on how to approach problems with the custodial parent.
“They (inmates) really enjoyed that segment,” he said. “That’s one of their main concerns coming out is knowing, ‘How do I deal with my child?’ Educating the inmates and preparing them for re-entry is a huge step and hopefully we can make things easier on down the road.”
He reminded the inmates at the ceremony that one of the most important projects they will take on after leaving prison is re-establishing their relationship with their children.
A representative from the Georgia Fatherhood Program also spoke to the inmates. The program is part of the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Child Support Services and helps non-custodial parents overcome employment barriers so they can gain steady employment and make timely child support payments. An inmate scheduled to be released Wednesday said he would take advantage of the program after his release.
The Re-Entry program also helps inmates understand their voting rights and expungement. Jackson said some inmates who had been out of prison for 10 years or longer weren’t aware they could vote again.
He feels getting the community involved in the prison environment will help them walk out of prison with a positive opinion about the community.
“They understand that there are people that love and care about them outside of their family and want them to be better,” Jackson said. “It also shows that the Department of Corrections and the warden is on board with helping guys acclimate themselves. They want them to be successful.”
He said it took the efforts of all the participating organizations, agencies and businesses to make the in-house program happen.
“We started the Re-Entry program back in 2005; that’s when it began to permeate,” he said. “We actually opened the doors in March of 2008. Ever since then, we have been building up to get inside the prison, so that’s where we are right now.”
Serving as a go-between for recently released prisoners and government or community contacts is the program’s primary goal. Because the NAACP has chapters based throughout the state, help is available in whatever county the inmate lives.
“They can always call me regardless of what county their in or what city,” Jackson said. “We are able to address any issues they may have.”
NAACP branch President Norman Sims said the community is welcome to stop by the office to learn more about the Re-Entry program.
“It really has made a difference in our community and we hope to make a difference in the state of Georgia,” Sims said. “Once you educate a person, once that person has the knowledge, that will help them not return back to the system. It’s a dynamite program.”
Prison Warden Jason Driver commended the NAACP for what the program has accomplished. He said past programs have offered one or two elements of re-entry, but the NAACP’s program combines all the elements together.
“I’ve been doing this for about 15 years now and this is the first time I’ve seen a program that was as extensive as this program,” Driver said. “The program here enhances what we’re already doing here.”
The prison currently offers a GED program, outside work crews and some inmates are given the chance to work in maintenance shops.
“We’re offering them some of the job training and getting them those tools that they need as far as education and skills,” Driver said. “Then ... they take those skills they’ve learned while they’re here and ... transition that into the free world.”
Prison counselor Otis Wilson appreciates that the community and the department of corrections coming together to bring the program inside.
“I think it’s a wonderful program,” Wilson said. “I would hope that we would inspire the rest of the state to do the same thing.”
DOC Re-Entry coordinator B.J. Blair said the program at Carroll County Prison is the first to take place in a county prison.
“The department of corrections feels that the re-entry program that is being taught here in the prison by the NAACP is so important,” Blair said. “Re-entry is a collaboration between agencies, associations, community service providers. We could not do what we do without them.”