Group says life af­ter prison re­quires com­mu­nity

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAN HOLTMEYER

BEN­TONVILLE — Good in­ten­tions aren’t enough to push some­one’s life in a new di­rec­tion af­ter prison, ad­vo­cates and for­mer in­mates said Thurs­day.

A new life also needs deep-rooted com­mit­ment from that per­son and from oth­ers in the com­mu­nity, said mem­bers and sup­port­ers of the Path­way to Free­dom non­profit, which of­fers a Chris­tian-fo­cused re-en­try pro­gram for Arkansas Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion in­mates. A re­cent grad­u­ate of the pro­gram was fea­tured at the group’s semi­an­nual fundrais­ing lun­cheon.

More than 50 per­cent of re­leased in­mates re­turn to prison within three years, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion.

TJ West said he served 10 years for rob­bery and other charges, and was re­leased about two months ago af­ter fin­ish­ing the 18-month por­tion of the pro­gram that takes place be­hind bars in Wrightsville. Path­way to Free­dom of­fers anger man­age­ment and par­ent­ing cour­ses, as well as new ways of think­ing, and mem­bers hold each other accountable, he said.

Af­ter re­lease, Path­way to Free­dom pro­vides a year of sup­port find­ing hous­ing, jobs and get­ting par­tic­i­pants in touch with men­tors and other vol­un­teers, of­ten through churches. West is now an out­reach in­tern with the group, has a driver’s li­cense and pays rent and taxes, he an­nounced half-jok­ingly but proudly.

“Now I’m an ef­fec­tive fa­ther, for once in my life,” he told the group, thank­ing the vol­un­teers and con­trib­u­tors and urg­ing a few new­com­ers to get in­volved with re-en­try ef­forts. Nearly all in­mates will re­turn to their com­mu­ni­ties. The ques­tion for those com­mu­ni­ties, he said, is this: “How do you want us back?”

Arkansas has strug­gled for years with over­full jails and pris­ons and high re­cidi­vism rates. More than 50 per­cent of re­leased in­mates re­turn to prison within three years, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion.

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son and other state of­fi­cials have pushed for more re-en­try pro­grams, with the goal of help­ing for­mer prison­ers build nor­mal lives and avoid sur­round­ings or sit­u­a­tions that can draw them back into crime. Hutchin­son in 2015 put $5.5 mil­lion to­ward pri­vate re-en­try hous­ing cen­ters un­der the Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment, for ex­am­ple, and more money to beef up pa­role staff.

Path­way to Free­dom con­tracts with the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion but isn’t paid by the state, given its re­li­gious fo­cus. In­stead the state pro­vides the fa­cil­ity and food at its J. A. Hawkins Unit, which can hold 200 men.

Wal­ter E. Huss­man Jr., the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette’s pub­lisher, is a mem­ber of Path­way to Free­dom’s board.

About 85 per­cent of about 120 grad­u­ates so far have stayed out of prison since their re­lease, though not all have been out for the three­year pe­riod of re­cidi­vism rates, Path­way to Free­dom Di­rec­tor Scott McLean said ear­lier this year.

“Just build­ing pris­ons is not the an­swer,” said Joe Bruton, re-en­try spe­cial­ist for the North­west Arkansas area and him­self a Path­way to Free­dom par­tic­i­pant eight years ago. About 30 par­tic­i­pants are from North­west Arkansas, 15 have been re­leased and are in the sec­ond part of the pro­gram and 20 grad­u­ates still stay in touch, he said.

“We build a com­mu­nity of sup­port in there for them, and then we em­u­late it out­side,” he added.

Bruton and West cred­ited that com­mu­nity and God for their suc­cess. West said at first he hoped only that the pro­gram might help him get pa­role ear­lier. But the spir­i­tual, psy­cho­log­i­cal and prac­ti­cal help it gave turned out to be “so much more than I could have ever thought,” he said.

Par­tic­i­pants don’t need to be Chris­tian, but the fo­cus on Je­sus Christ makes the pro­gram unique and ef­fec­tive, McLean said.

“We’ve got to do things dif­fer­ently than they’ve been done” to solve re­cidi­vism and over­crowd­ing, he said.

Dina Tyler, a deputy di­rec­tor at Arkansas Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion, said Path­way to Free­dom’s model of get­ting com­mu­nity vol­un­teers in­volved is crit­i­cal. Path­way to Free­dom doesn’t fall un­der the depart­ment, but the depart­ment runs pa­role pro­grams and re-en­try cen­ters, which of­ten face push­back from some nearby res­i­dents, she said.

Solomon Graves, spokesman for the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion, wasn’t avail­able for com­ment Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

“There are of­fend­ers in your com­mu­nity any­way,” Tyler said, and help­ing them get reg­u­lar jobs and lives keeps ev­ery­one safer. “We have to have more men­tor­ship, and we have to have more com­mu­nity in­volve­ment — we just do.”

Dina Tyler, a deputy di­rec­tor at Arkansas Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion, said Path­way to Free­dom’s model of get­ting com­mu­nity vol­un­teers in­volved is crit­i­cal.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAN HOLTMEYER

TJ West (right), a re­cent par­tic­i­pant in the Path­way to Free­dom re-en­try pro­gram for Arkansas prison in­mates be­fore and af­ter re­lease, speaks Thurs­day about his ex­pe­ri­ence to a group of vol­un­teers and sup­port­ers in Ben­tonville.

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