BY KIPTON JENSEN, PH.D.
Last month was Reentry Awareness Month in Georgia. Governor Kemp approved—for the sixth year, though most of us are still largely unaware—”a proclamation to observe July as Reentry Awareness Month throughout the state” (see here). The Proclamation acknowledges that “over 4.2 million Georgians have a criminal record” and that by “eliminating the stigmas associated with having a criminal record and promoting compassion and kindness, we can help returning citizens strive for brighter futures.”
To say that reentry from prison is difficult or challenging is to understate the situation to the extreme. But it is also true that there are several very promising governmental and nongovernmental initiatives worth celebrating in Georgia. The Morehouse College AYCGL Prison Education Initiative is collaborating with heroes and heroines who are doing exemplary work in our local communities. The AYCGL wishes to celebrate their past successes and future goals while also paying attention to their unique challenges. For the sake of brevity, we will focus here on just few of our community partners in Atlanta.
1. NewLife-Second Chance Outreach, who sponsored this proclamation, is committed to “equipping, empowering, and restoring hope to justice involved, socially and economically disadvantaged men and women.” This year, this organization issued a “call to action that you support us by committing to use humanizing language when referring to those of us with criminal records instead of using derogatory, disrespectful, triggering, and dehumanizing labels such as ‘felons,’ ‘inmates,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘ex-cons,’ ‘sex offenders,’ ‘prisoners,’ ‘convicts,’ ‘delinquents,’ ‘super predators,’ and ‘offenders.’ We are more than our criminal records and should not be defined by our pasts and limited by labels.” Thank you especially to Ms. Waleisah Wilson for her vision and initiative in designating July as Reentry Awareness Month in Georgia.
2. The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Atlanta was founded in 2016 and emerged out of years of organizing and base-building in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. Led by Ms. Kareemah Hanifa, IMAN provides a wide array of services: among them are the Atlanta Green Reentry Program. Ms. Hanifa was a recent panelist at Morehouse’s Prison Education and Reentry Fair and she is also involved with the Fulton County Jail Academy of Hope Program (see below).
3. Academy of Hope at Fulton County Jail. The Sheriff of Fulton Country is working with Mr. Andre Norman and his team at the Academy of Hope to improve the conditions at Fulton County Jail in the West End of Atlanta. Mr. Norman established his reputation for violence interruption and mitigation in prisons and jails in South Carolina. Together with local community partners, including faculty and students affiliated with the AYC Prison Education Initiative at Morehouse College, the ‘Academy of Hope’ Program at Fulton County aims at restoring safety and dignity as well as peace and hope to people who are detained as well as training the staff who work at Fulton County Jail.
4. Morehouse School of Medicine has created a Prisons to Possibilities Program. The anticipated impact of this program consists in providing “sustained, comprehensive, culturally competent set of services and programs will allow incarcerated and released black men aged 14 to 24 in America to return to productive, healthy lives and become positive members of their families and communities.”
5. The Georgia Department of Corrections’ Metro Reentry Facility in Atlanta prepares men “who will be released following completion of their prison sentence or if released on parole. The facility utilizes evidence-based practices and community collaboration to address barriers offenders face in order to successfully return to society.” In partnership with Common Goo Atlanta, Morehouse faculty teach humanities classes and host a book club at Metro Reentry. (We recently read Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine.) During our book club discussion, one of the students at Metro said that “all prisons should be more like this one.” Metro Prison was converted into a Reentry Program in 2018. Metro Reentry offers educational programs, sundry sorts, from GED to accredited higher education classes in the humanities to data science and coding to dog training.
6. The Georgia Coalition of Higher Education (GACHEP) provides a broad spectrum of advocacy and support services for men and women, as well as their families, who have been directly impacted by incarceration. Led by Patrick Rodriguez and Thomas Fabisiak, GACHEP has sponsored the ‘BAN the BOX’ campaign. This campaign seeks to reduce the difficulty posed to formerly incarcerated men and women who wish to enter—or reenter—institutions of higher education after their release from prison. Many colleges and universities include a disqualifying application question related to convictions for felonies or lesser infractions.
7. Common Good Atlanta (CGA) has been providing higher education in Georgia for 25 years. Co-founded by Bill Taft and Sarah Higinbotham in 2008, CGA offers classes at 15 various correction facilities, far and wide, in Georgia. Alumni and alumnae of their programs can continue their education as part of the Downtown Reentry program. One of their programs, “See Us Differently,” uses art and music to meliorate the gap between how formerly incarcerated men and women are viewed by society and how they see themselves. As part of this program, CGA recently co-sponsored a “reflective art” event with Canine CellMates.
8. Canine CellMates, which was founded in 2013 in partnership with the Fulton County Jail, strives “to provide a better life for both the inmates in the Fulton County Jail and rescued shelter dogs from FCAS.” Led by Susan Jacobs-Meadows, Canine CellMates utilizes shelter dogs to change the lives of incarcerated men through 10-week programs of bonding and training. Several alumni of this program said that this program “saved their life” by providing purpose and a caring community.
9. RestoreHer is a policy advocacy reentry organization led by and for justice-involved women of color, based in Georgia. RestoreHER addresses the social determinants of criminalization and intersectionality of social inequities through education, leadership, and policy change to protect the dignity, reproductive justice, and restore the rights of all women directly impacted by incarceration, convictions, and/or trauma. Our mission is to enhance the lives of directly impacted women and work in partnership with those women to end the vicious cycle that leads to mass incarceration for women of color and pregnant women in the south. RestoreHer is led by Pamela Winn, who is known in reentry cirles in Georgia as “The Face of Dignity For Incarcerated Women.”
10. ReNforce provides training and coaching to businesses looking to hire system-impacted people to meet their workforce needs, while simultaneously providing unique training and professional development to improve employment outcomes for career-seekers. Charlotte Garnes founded ReNforce in response to her personal experiences with workplace discrimination after her incarceration. It became Charlotte’s personal mission to create a nonprofit organization that would work not only with businesses and organizations but also system-impacted individuals who experience similar situations and barriers to employment relating to incarceration or the criminal and legal system.
The success of these programs can be measured in various ways, both quantitative and qualitative, in terms of reduced recidivism rates on the one hand and an enhanced sense of purpose or hope on the other. Individuals and communities are often unaware of how difficult it is to recover—economically, socially, politically, psychologically—from the machinations of the carceral system, including the restrictions associated with citizens on probation and parole. We should be aware of the fact that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by and overrepresented in the carceral system: e.g., “in Georgia, Black people constituted 32% of state residents, but 51% of people in jail and 60% of people in prison (Vera Institute of Justice). Success is often measured one day at a time, one person at a time, and the fruit of their labor may not appear immediately. We should become more aware of the many obstacles, both personal and structural, that thwart the successful reentry our fellow citizens into their—our—communities. But we should also become increasingly aware of the amazing work done by our community partners who, similar to the extraordinary organizations listed above, are providing creative and conscientious reentry and support services in Georgia.