Tearing Down Invisible Prison Walls Created by Poverty

By Mike Klein

MIKE KLEIN Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Prisons do not need walls.  High unemployment, low education, blight, depression, desperation and deprivation can become easy substitutes for bricks and mortar.   Simply because someone completes time inside prison walls going home does not guarantee new hope and a new life.

Ex-offenders often return to “some of the poorest neighborhoods and urban centers and rural towns throughout America and the city of Griffin in Spalding County, Georgia is no exception,” said Theo Harris when he recently addressed the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Harris wears many hats in his community, among them, member of the Griffin-Spalding Reentry Task Force.

Standing before a large mural filled with multi-colored stick pins, Harris showed Council members four Griffin census tracks that have 21 percent unemployment and a 31 percent poverty rate.  In both cases that is nearly double the overall Spalding County percentages.  “It is into these census tracks that the majority of offenders return,” said Harris.   “We are looking at a picture of insidious poverty.”

Georgia adult and juvenile criminal justice reform has consistently tracked two paths:  incarceration for the worst offenders and community-based resources for others who pose no threat to public safety and whose needs are better met outside prison walls.   This year’s focus is prisoner reentry policies.   Communities are trying to strengthen local resources to tear down the invisible walls.

Griffin-Spalding is seeking a federal grant and private resources to support intervention for medium and high-risk parolees.   St. John Baptist Church in Savannah is further along with a residential program to serve 50 ex-offenders.   In Atlanta, a former investment banker secured three years of dedicated funding to support a residential program already open and housed at the Gateway Center.

Harris said 270 ex-offenders are released to the Griffin area each year; 60 percent return to prison within three years.  That is double the state recidivism rate that also is considered unacceptably high.  A $50,000 “Second Chance Act” federal grant supported 18 months of task force planning.  The next step is to apply for a $750,000 federal implementation grant in early 2014.  If approved, the task force would start working with former offenders next October.  Ideally, Harris said the program should become self-supporting by replicating its model statewide and even to other states.

Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap so strongly supports a new St. John Baptist Church project in Savannah that she also traveled to Forsyth to address the criminal justice reform council.  “Savannah unfortunately has a high level of crime and we are trying to address it in several ways,” said Heap.  She said 2,000 people per year in Savannah are placed on parole or probation.

St. John Baptist Church estimates a 50-bed program in a building it has already purchased will cost $500,000 per year to operate versus $1.3 million to house 50 adults in a state post-incarceration transition facility.  “The goal and the mission is rehabilitation,” said Keisha Carter on behalf of the church.  “The education and medical piece is huge.  We will also help offenders who are fathers or mothers connect with child support entities to make sure they are fulfilling their obligation.”

Securing work is another priority.  “They’re hitting walls,” said Chatham County District Attorney Heap.  “At the end of the day if we cannot get them back into the community working, having a viable job, then they are going to turn back” to the behavior that caused them to be incarcerated.  Heap said Savannah area employers contacted by the church have been receptive and, “Several businesses are willing to hook up and work with these individuals.”

In Atlanta, “Georgia Works!” founded by former investment banker Bill McGahan has opened with 30 men who live at the Gateway Center.  “The profile of our participant is a 40-year-old man who’s been arrested four times,” said McGahan.  “He’s a convicted felon, he’s previously had drug addiction, he’s had some high school, he meets the federal definition of homeless and he hasn’t had a job in at least two years.”

The twelve-month program is rigid.  It requires drug tests every 48-to-72 hours.  Residents must not accept government handouts or other public benefits, must work 30 hours per week, must agree to 20 percent forced savings and must pay room and board.  The average paycheck after deductions is $90 per week.  “We have a line out the door of people who want to join,” McGahan said.

McGahan told criminal justice reform council members that $1 million already secured in cash or in-kind contributions will sustain “Georgia Works!” for three years at Gateway Center with a 40-bed capacity.  The annual per person cost is $20,000-to-$25,000.   United Way of Greater Atlanta is a partial funder.  “Georgia Works!” is modeled on a New York program that McGahan said graduates several hundred people per year and operates on a $40 million budget.

“Georgia Works!” is marketing its program to a variety of primarily public sector employers, largely for entry level and lower wage jobs.  “Our job is to convince them to give us a shot,” said McGahan.  “There are people who want to get out of their predicament.   They don’t have any idea how.”  The goal is for the project to become self-sustaining with all costs offset by labor contract revenues.

The council will deliver its report to Governor Nathan Deal before the 2014 General Assembly session starts on Monday, January 13.  The report is expected to expand on previous work to identify best practices and accountability in adult and juvenile justice. Deal also asked the council to consider whether the state should modify current civil asset forfeiture laws.