Avoiding old temptations while attempting to re-enter society can be overwhelming for former prisoners, and it often leads to more criminal activity.
Faith-based Prison Fellowship hopes to help stop that trend with its newly launched program, Out4Life, which provides a “re-entry coalition” to assist former prisoners seeking employment resources and reconnecting with society.
For Shellie Billingsley, an ex-offender who served nearly two years in the Tennessee Prison for Women on multiple drug charges, a mentor and help from the community made a big difference.
She was released into a program in Franklin called Leaving the Cocoon, a mentoring program for female ex-prisoners. With help she found a job and moved on with her life.
The hope for Out4Life is to repeat that success.
Aimee Vance, the Tennessee field director for Prison Fellowship, said providing ex-prisoners support in three important areas — housing, jobs and mentors — can greatly reduce the recidivism rate.
The mentoring aspect of the re-entry process is key, Vance said, because often when someone leaves prison that person doesn’t know how to balance a checkbook, doesn’t have a license or hasn’t held a job before. But mentors also help with something as seemingly simple as filling free time.
“That’s one of the things that can get them trouble — when they get out, they get bored and they will revert,” Vance said.
With help, Billingsley found a job, but she learned, not just any job is suited for an ex-prisoner when the temptation of drugs and alcohol surfaced at her new job.
“Employment is really, really hard when you have a record, especially when you’re fresh out,” she said.
Bob Fritzlan of the Cumberland Advisory Group said employers can’t offer an ex-prisoner just any job, but it’s not as simple as ending the interview at the box checked “yes” for a felony conviction.
“Sometimes you need to look at the person and look at the job,” Fritzlan said, explaining that employers should match skill sets with the available position and reconcile the person with the job description.
When Fritzlan needed a secretary at the mortgage company where he worked, he found Billingsley through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program.
“It’s just amazing that when the community does come together … there are positive results,” Billingsley said. “It means the difference between life and death.”
Having a mentor available to help on her “bad days” — someone to give her suggestions on how to cope without turning to drugs and alcohol — is the difference maker, Billingsley said.
Out4Life is establishing coalitions in six areas across the state — Nashville, Memphis, Jackson, Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities. They kicked off the program with a conference that runs through Wednesday at the Millennium Maxwell House.
Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Gayle Ray extolled the virtues of the program after she addressed the conference on Tuesday.
Reducing recidivism slows down the prison-building process and frees up money for prevention programs such as health care, education and social services, she told The City Paper.
“Groups like this — faith-based groups and other folks — can really be helpful in our efforts to lower recidivism even more,” Ray said.
Ray said the Tennessee recidivism rate (from 2007 numbers, the latest available) is 39.8 percent after three years out of prison.