For­mer con­vict gets new lease on life through pro­gram

Farm­ing 4 Hunger wel­comes soon-to-be ex-con­vict with fel­low­ship, job

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU jan­fen­son-comeau@somd­

Af­ter more than a quar­ter cen­tury in prison, J.B. Thomas is ready to start a new life and a new ca­reer, both of which he cred­its to the com­mu­nity he be­came a part of af­ter he be­gan work­ing at Seren­ity Farm in Bene­dict.

“It re­ally feels good,” Thomas said. “It feels won­der­ful to know that I’ve got all this sup­port.”

Thomas said he was sen­tenced to life plus three years in 1991 at the age of 19 af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion in which his for­mer friend drew a gun and killed some­one. The friend re­ceived life plus 20 years.

Thomas came to Seren­ity Farm to work in its Farm­ing 4 Hunger pro­gram in 2016. Seren­ity Farm de­vel­oped the pro­gram in part­ner­ship with the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions South­ern Mary­land Pre-Re­lease Fa­cil­ity in or­der to help give for­mer con­victs a sec­ond chance af­ter re­lease, said founder Bernie Fowler Jr.

“This is an op­por­tu­nity for th­ese men to re-en­ter so­ci­ety,” Fowler said.

Be­gun in 2012, Farm­ing 4 Hunger grows food which is do­nated to local area food banks. In­car­cer­ated in­di­vid­u­als and vol­un­teers come out to work on the farm, form­ing con­nec­tions.

“We use the food as a ves­sel to get peo­ple to come out here,” Fowler said. “It’s a place where our com­mu­nity can come to­gether.”

While at the farm, in­car­cer­ated in­di­vid­u­als are also given the op­por­tu­nity to learn new skills, Fowler said.

The goal, Fowler said, it to re­duce re­cidi­vism by help­ing re­turn­ing cit­i­zens es­tab­lish them­selves in the com­mu­nity.

“When they come out of in­car­cer­a­tion, they’re given $50 and ‘have a good life’,” Fowler said. “They strug­gle with em­ploy­ment, they strug­gle with their past his­tory on a job ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Thomas said he was sur­prised by the wel­come he re­ceived when he first came to Seren­ity Farm.

“You don’t get that in the de­part­ment of cor­rec­tions. You get your three meals, and your sleep­ing cot, and you go on and do what­ever you’re go­ing to do,” Thomas said. “Ev­ery time we come out here, they break us down, and build us back up, and give us the builds that we need, the skills to pay the bills, to help us. If you told me five years ago that I was go­ing to get this, I’d have said you were ly­ing.”

While in prison, Thomas’ iden­tity was ap­par­ently stolen by some­one who com­mit­ted traf­fic vi­o­la­tions, but at­tor­neys as­so­ci­ated with Farm­ing 4 Hunger were able to get those cleared, paving the way for Thomas’ re­lease.

“It was clear he didn’t do it, he was in­car­cer­ated,” said Michele Que­sen­berry, life coach and “sec­ond chance” co­or­di­na­tor. “But you wouldn’t be­lieve how many hoops we had to jump through to get it cleared from his record.”

Thomas, who is sched­uled for re­lease this week, was re­cently hired by Gam­brils-based Chaney En­ter­prises. Thomas is the third re­turn­ing citizen to be hired by Chaney, Fowler said.

“Judy [John­son] with H.R. came out, in­ter­viewed J.B. while in­car­cer­ated, in our back build­ing, and be­fore she left gave him the news that Chaney was go­ing to hire him,” Fowler said.

Thomas is sched­uled to be­gin paid train­ing to­wards re­ceiv­ing his com­mer­cial driver’s li­cense on April 10.

“We’re ex­cited about hav­ing J.B. on our team,” John­son said. “We look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties through this pro­gram. It’s been a great suc­cess.”

A lun­cheon was held Fri­day to cel­e­brate Thomas’ re­turn to the com­mu­nity, at­tended by rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions, Chaney En­ter­prises and var­i­ous churches that had been in­volved in his re­lease.

Vi­o­let Downs, with the Hunt­ing­town United Methodist Church, pre­sented Thomas with a study Bible and journal.

“We are just so proud of the per­son you’ve evolved into,” Downs told Thomas. “You, the rest of the guys, have be­come our adopted sons.”

Thomas said he is grate­ful for all of the sup­port he has re­ceived as he pre­pares to re­join the out­side world af­ter hav­ing spent most of his life in prison.

“They chose to give me an op­por­tu­nity out here, and … I know that I can be suc­cess­ful,” Thomas said. “It’s been a bless­ing.”

J.B. Thomas re­ceives a study Bible from Vi­o­let Downs and other mem­bers of the Hunt­ing­town United Methodist Church con­gre­ga­tion dur­ing a cel­e­bra­tory lun­cheon hon­or­ing Thomas on Fri­day.

Bernie Fowler Jr. of Farm­ing 4 Hunger, left, and Judy John­son of Gam­brills-based Chaney En­ter­prises, right, wel­come J.B. Thomas, a de­part­ment of cor­rec­tions in­mate sched­uled for re­lease this week. Thomas is to be­gin work train­ing with Chaney En­ter­prises on April 10. STAFF PHO­TOS BY JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU

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