Former convict gets new lease on life through program
Farming 4 Hunger welcomes soon-to-be ex-convict with fellowship, job
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