Jonathan O’Neill, a humble and soft-spoken man, is 46 years old and the father of fourteen children. He has been incarcerated since 2012 and currently resides at a transitional center where he works and takes various classes to prepare for his release that is set for Spring 2016. He is currently responsible for paying child support for seven of his children, which mostly consists of reimbursing the state for public assistance that was given to the children’s mothers. His other seven children are either grown or fully supported by their mothers.
When the time comes for Jonathan to be released, he will have as much as $45,000 in back child support, a suspended driver’s license, and the stigma of a criminal record. His story demonstrates how child support debt and its associated consequences can create significant barriers for people reentering society from prison.
The Debt Begins
Jonathan was just 19 years old when had his first run-in with the law. A joyride with a friend in a stolen car not only cost him his freedom, but also led his then girlfriend to seek Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to take care of their child. Like many incarcerated persons, Jonathan found out the hard way that he owed child support to the state as reimbursement for public assistance, and that his time behind bars did not delay responsibility to pay the state back. The 18-month prison sentence he received resulted in thousands of dollars in arrears accruing by the time he was released.
This debt made him angry and he refused to pay the state back for the public assistance given to his girlfriend.
Jonathan had his next two children with another woman. Though they lived together, this girlfriend also began receiving TANF apart from him knowing it. His child support arrears grew to $8,000 during this time because he was not paying the state for the public assistance it was providing for his children. Additionally, none of the money he spent to take care of his children while they lived together counted toward his growing child support debt because it was considered unofficial support since payments were not being made to the state as a reimbursement for public assistance. This led to a fall-out with his girlfriend and made him grow even more angry and rebellious toward the child support system over the next few years.
Jonathan explains, “I was mad at the mothers for doing this, so I neglected paying. I would take care of the children in my home, but I didn’t want to pay the state back. I had a rebellious spirit and felt like I was the father and I’m doing it how I want to.”
By the age of 27, Jonathan had five children from two mothers and over $14,000 in child support arrears. Having difficulty finding a job with his felony conviction, he began selling drugs to earn money. He was eventually caught with cocaine in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years on probation. Nine years later in 2008, he violated his conditions of probation by testing positive for marijuana, and he was sent to a Probation Detention Center (PDC) for 90 days.
A Turning Point
During his time in the PDC, Jonathan reflected upon the words a judge spoke to him in 2005: “You have so much in arrears, you will die owing the state money.” These words haunted him, and he wanted to make sure this did not prove true.
Upon release from the PDC in 2008, Jonathan became involved with a church that was located directly across the street from the PDC. It was through his involvement there that he experienced a spiritual transformation and became determined to earn an honest living. However, despite his earnest desire to find legitimate work, he struggled to find a job for eight months.
“I waited eight months and still I had no job. I got letters from the state threatening to lock me up for a whole year for non-payment of child support. I was tempted to sell drugs again. However, I chose to depend on God and He came through. I started painting at the church for no money. One day, God brought a man from the church who gave me a job at Food Lion because he was leaving.”
Jonathan gained skills as a meat cutter and worked consistently from 2009-2012 at stores such as Food Lion, Food Depot, and Piggly Wiggly, even earning employee of the quarter at his first store. During this period, he paid the full amount of his child support order each month plus a percentage of his arrears, amounting to $566 per month. He was determined to pay off his debt and make sure that he would not die owing money to the state
“I would have paid all of this debt at one time if I could,” says Jonathan, but at this point he was nowhere close to being able to do this. Instead, he paid what he could little-by-little. As a result, his hard work and determination enabled him to reduce his arrears by thousands of dollars.
Jonathan was heading down the right track.
In the summer of 2012, Jonathan and his fiancé were scraping by to pay the bills. Desperate for a way to earn extra cash, he discovered that he was able to win quick cash through gambling.
“I got addicted to playing gambling machines for cash money. I started losing money and got behind on rent. I didn’t want to face my children after not being able to pay, and I thought I could gamble to get the money.”
The day came when Jonathan gambled away money that he needed to pay his family’s rent. Upon losing, he panicked and snatched the money from a manager at the gambling center. For his rash actions, he was charged with robbery by snatching and was sentenced to prison for the second time.
“I’ve been in prison for two years and three months now. The state just sent me two letters for two different cases and I owe a total of $45,308 in arrears ($18,209 non-TANF arrears and $27,099 TANF arrears). It’s discouraging. I’m in prison – what do they expect me to do?”
Georgia is one of three states that does not allow inmates to earn money while working in prison, leaving him no way to pay his debt while incarcerated. However, now that he is at a transitional center, Jonathan has the ability to work, earn money, and have some earnings withheld to pay child support.
He is currently working at Arko Veal Meat Co. earning $8.50 per hour and working 26 hours per week. This work enables him to have $389 withheld from his paycheck every month to go toward paying child support.
Barriers to Reentry
While Jonathan’s time in the transitional center is helping to prepare him for reentry, he will face new challenges upon release. His home is far from the transitional center where he currently resides, which means that he will lose his present job and have to look for another one. He tried to transfer to a transitional center closer to home in order to find a job that he could keep upon release, but he was denied that opportunity. Still, he is hopeful that he will be able to get his old job back at Food Depot when the time comes to be released.
If this opportunity does not work out, his plan is to try to get a job at a different grocery store called Harvey’s. The manager at this store has hired individuals with convictions before, which gives him hope that he can work there, too. He would earn around $10 an hour as a meat cutter.
Even once Jonathan is able to secure a job, he still faces the challenge of commuting to work daily due to his suspended driver’s license. His license will only be reinstated by paying a sum that is twice the amount of his current child support order of $566, in addition to paying the normal monthly order.
“When the child support agent firmly stated that the amount I pay to get my license reinstated does not include what is coming out of my check, I hung my head. I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do this.’”
This sum of $1,698 is simply too much for him to pay while trying to pay rent, bills, and other living expenses.
Jonathan tried to arrange an agreement to make a partial payment in order to get his license back at an earlier point in time: “I told the agent, ‘Ma’am, I really need a license. Can I make a partial payment?’ She said no and told me that the judge ordered me to pay the full amount. She then said that we could get it modified, but that it would cost $300 just to go before the judge. I told her I can’t come up with it.”
He estimates that it will take him a year of full-time work at the grocery store before he will be able to pay to have his driver’s license reinstated. For now, he plans to get to work by having his fiancé, who works a full-time job as a night-shift nurse assistant, or his adult son drive him there.
Jonathan has a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to support his kids, which he demonstrated during the three years leading up to his incarceration. He simply lacks the money needed to have his license reinstated because it must go toward meeting his family’s basic living expenses.
“Having a driver’s license would not only be my way to work, but it would also help out with my duties as a husband and father around our home. My son and daughter are starting Kindergarten and Pre-K and my fiancé works from 11 pm to 8 am, so I will have to take them to school before I go to work.
For now, he is determined to make the best use of his time in the transitional center as he prepares for his reentry. He expresses an air of freedom and hope that did not exist earlier in his life, despite being encumbered by debt. He knows what it looks like to fully embrace his roles as a responsible father and citizen, and he plans to continue down this path once he is released.
This article is the first in a series of posts that will address key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia, as discussed in the overview report, Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia.
By Aundrea Gregg and Eric Wearne
For each student in Georgia, education is a personal experience that will ultimately impact his or her life’s circumstances and opportunities as an adult. Students who matriculate from high school on to college graduation and careers greatly increase their earning potential as adults and are less likely to experience family breakdown, need government assistance, and become entangled in the legal system than those who fall through the cracks.
In Georgia, however, the number of students who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, almost 1 out of every 3 Georgians does not graduate from high school in four years, placing Georgia 48th in the country.
For students who do graduate high school, many still leave inadequately prepared for the demands of universities and Georgia’s industries. In 2011, Complete College America reported that 18% of freshman entering 4-year universities in Georgia required remediation in at least one subject area. Another 37% of freshmen entering 2-year colleges required remediation as well. The need for remediation not only significantly lowers the likelihood of completing a degree program; it also comes at an annual cost of millions to the state.
As educational attainment in K-12 and college sets the stage for placement in the workforce, reports have noted the discord between high school and college graduates’ preparedness and employers’ expectations for new hires.
Whether in search of applicants with rudimentary skills, such as the ability to arrive on time every day, or applicants in possession of the skills to fill advanced technical positions, approximately 5,000 jobs in Georgia remain unfilled in 2015 due in part to a “skills gap.” A study in Michigan found that businesses across the state spend about $222 million each year correcting the shortcomings of their employees who leave high school without the basic skills needed for their job. Given the exorbitant cost, it is understandable why employers in Georgia would not want to spend time training employees for skills they should already possess.
Something More Than Academics
Providing access to quality education from the start of kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond is of course necessary for Georgia’s citizens to thrive and prosper.
To narrow the gaps, major reforms have focused almost exclusively on improving student achievement by employing more rigorous academic standards in schools, as measured by reading and math scores. Though academic achievement is certainly vital to success, this narrowed paradigm for student advancement has done little to change the status quo regarding outcomes.
A Gray Area
Grade Point Averages (GPA), scores on the SAT, and completion of state exit exams are all black and white expectations on the pathway to college and a career. Probably more important, however, are the challenges students face in terms of cultivating themselves as individuals, of forming the habits that support personal growth, and of fashioning an early idea of what their purpose in life will be.
With a wider and more abstract understanding of readiness, motivation, responsibility, planning and decision-making, Georgia can begin to define a current gray area of learning needs that have been underdeveloped in K-12 schools.
Not “Soft Skills” – Necessary Noncognitive Factors
The term “soft skills” has long been used to describe non-academic learning factors that aid students’ ability to grasp content knowledge. There is, however, nothing soft about the personal traits such as perseverance and self-control; skills such as time management and goal setting; and interventions such as attachment to community and access to support systems that shape a student’s mindset for learning, both positively and negatively.
This wide package of traits and tools comprise what have been commonly referred to in a large body of research as noncognitive factors. While noncognitive factors have been given credence as important components of student success, there are very few programs and policies that encourage their development in students, schools, and communities.
This post seeks to explain the importance of these skills and propose recommendations that support their development in K-12 settings in Georgia.
The Value of Developing Noncognitive Factors
Preparing students to succeed in school and life requires the development of two sets of skills: cognitive abilities that constitute what is often referred to as hard knowledge, as well as noncognitive factors that help individuals apply that knowledge. Whereas cognitive functions include processes such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering, noncognitive factors include a person’s aptitude for planning, emotional maturity, interpersonal interactions, and communication skills – both verbal and nonverbal.
Noncognitive factors largely shape a person’s behavior and greatly influence their ability to function in educational settings. For students with a strong base of noncognitive factors, such as strong study habits, eagerness to ask questions, positive self-image, and determination to reach goals, just to name a few, the ability to bridge knowledge gained in the classroom with actual success increases substantially.
Further, research led by the Center for the Economics of Education concluded that noncognitive factors can be a strong predictor of compatible occupations, wage potential, and the likelihood of risky behavior as an adult.
Noncognitive Factors Chart
||Realistic Self- Appraisal
||Planning & Decision Making
||Constructive Time Management
||Connection to Strong Support Person
||Caring School Environment
Noncognitive Factors and College and Career Readiness
Noncognitive factors are becoming more prominent considerations in college admissions and hiring processes across the country. This is largely due to institutions of higher learning and employers desiring candidates that possess abilities that extend beyond mastery of math and English.
Research led by Dr. William Sedlacek, a foremost expert on noncognitive variables and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Maryland, highlights that assessing noncognitive abilities in admissions processes is an important basis for colleges and employers to discern intelligences beyond those tested on standardized exams such as the SAT.
One practical example of this is the applicant assessment board for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. This project has focused entirely on evaluating noncognitive factors to discover students’ experiential intelligence – the ability to interpret information in a changing context or be creative – and contextual intelligence – the ability to adapt to changing environments and negotiate within a system. While neither of these intelligences is tested on the SAT, which only examines knowledge learned in a fixed context, the Gates’ board has had some success selecting students ready to perform in rigorous academic settings at institutions of higher learning. It should also be noted that Gates Scholars include demographics with statically lower chances of reaching college graduation such as first-generation college goers, low-income, and minority students.
As the consideration of noncognitive factors has allowed institutions to rethink admissions, hiring, and retention strategies, their recognized importance as a critical component of college and career readiness has increased for all students.
Opportunity: Building Strong Relationships between Schools and Students
As a means to develop noncognitive abilities, students require access to small-scale connections. Dr. Sedlacek, in his list of noncognitive variables, emphasizes strong support systems – specifically “a strong support person” that students can turn to to provide guidance on common child-to-adult transition situations. Emphasizing this point, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D notes in her acclaimed book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “support systems are simply networks of relationships.”
Why Relationships Matter
Fostering personal, strong relationships between teachers and students and even schools and families is important for many reasons. On the most basic level, establishing trust, communication, and understanding – all commonly accepted components of a healthy relationship – are prerequisite to creating environments in schools where students will thrive and parents participate.
Teachers who know their students personally are better equipped to tailor lesson plans and speak directly to specific needs. For historically disadvantaged groups such as young men of color and first generation college students, accessing mentors at school where familiarity with the college process is limited at home is key to closing persistent educational gaps.
Barriers to Opportunity
Noncognitive traits develop most prominently during early childhood, and parents play an important role in developing the noncognitive abilities of their children. Though noncognitive factors are more malleable, even during later stages in life, home life matters greatly and students may miss development of these skills due to issues such as family breakdown or poor socio-economic circumstances (as education levels of parents also factor into development).
While active parental involvement and a stable home environment are foundational to the noncognitive skills training that should take place in school, unfortunately, not all children in Georgia find the role models they need at home.
Though it only takes the support of one invested adult to guide a child, studies find that the representation of two parents in the home can greatly increase a child’s educational attainment. One study found in examining a sample of children who completed eighth grade that high school graduation rates were 90 percent for those in two-married-biological-parent families, 75 percent for those in single-mother-divorced families, and 69 percent for those in single-mother-never-married families. Similarly, when it comes to college attendance, 71 percent of children who live with two married, biological parents went on to college, while only half of children living with only their mothers took this route.
Increasing parental involvement in early childhood development, as well as maintaining positive relationships between parents and between parents and their children remains a paramount barrier to improving outcomes for students in K-12 and in adulthood.
Academic Attainment Rules
As it currently stands within many schools and school systems, the focus on noncognitive factors is embedded haphazardly through character education hours or small discussions about the need to build study habits. In fact, many of the habits and skills colleges and employers deem most valuable, are often addressed as periphery learning needs and go underdeveloped through curricula.
The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research notes, “teachers would play a vital role in helping students move from being passive recipients of academic content to active learners” who wield noncognitive abilities to progress through elevated academic challenges and, more importantly, demonstrate understanding in real world situations. To do this, focused development of noncognitive factors must parallel instruction on hard content in schools.
More rigorous academic standards remains the exclusive focus of schools because educational institutions are incentivized to worry about themselves as institutions, or on policy as an abstract, and not on students as individuals. In other words, policymaking has become too big in education and it incentivizes the wrong things. Schools worry about test scores. Much like colleges and universities worry about enrollment and sometimes retention, these are all measures that point back on the institutions, but say nothing about how well-prepared their students are to move on to college or a career. There remains an opportunity to better prepare Georgia’s students for college and careers by shifting more of the focus in schools from increasing academic standards to cultivating noncognitive factors.
Recommendations: What is Working
Continue Research on Strengthening Families and Communities
The importance of a stable home life cannot be stated enough in the process of cultivating noncognitive factors for Georgia’s children, although the impact of family breakdown and what to be done about this problem remain outside of the scope of this paper. Below are recommendations from Georgia Center for Opportunity’s College & Career Pathways Working Group regarding what is being done and what might be replicated within existing structures.
Intrusive Advising at All Levels of Schooling
Paul Tough highlights in his recent New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate?” the powerful feelings of stress that at-risk students can feel without the assistance of parents and mentors to mitigate minor bumps in the road. The point is made how quickly a first failing mark or trouble with a roommate can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and premature dropping out.
Educational institutions such as Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) and Paine College in Augusta, GA have begun to employ new advising strategies that combine personal relationship building with “tough love” to ensure at-risk students understand challenges that are common in college, reprogram bad habits, and overcome obstacles to stay on track for graduation.
Model: Georgia Gwinnett College
As an institution with an access mission, GGC’s students enroll with varying levels of preparedness for college. For instance, 30-40% of CCG’s incoming students enroll in at least one remedial class, meaning a large cross-section of students is off track to graduate from the start. To safeguard the large at-risk population, GGC’s administration has made it a point to increase access to teachers and administration. The school boasts no office hours, students may arrange meetings at any time, and students are given the (school issued) mobile number of every professor.
Additionally, through GGC’s intrusive advising programs, students who have already been placed on academic probation or worse receive a second chance to reach graduation. Under the watchful eyes of counselors, teachers, and peer coaches, students receive intense, regular engagement, mandatory tutoring and workshops, as well as student success classes.
While tactics such as intrusive advising remain largely isolated in the higher education realm and for at-risk students, these strategies could greatly influence college and career strategies for all students in K-12. At GGC, these “high engagement, individual focused efforts” created to serve a substantially high-need population have shown some success in student retention and graduation.
Parallel to the development of vital traits and skills at home, schools and communities are equally important places where students hone the necessary skills they will need for adulthood. Ideally parents, schools, and communities should work together to develop these noncognitive factors on all fronts. Schools and institutions would be well-served by taking these developmental gaps into account and addressing them formally.
Strong, healthy relationships between teachers and students, schools and families can be the x-factor that allows students to reach success. Interventions must extend beyond rigorous academic standards. Cultivating noncognitive factors through K-12 provides a more holistic approach to college and career readiness.
While education plays a tremendous role in shaping individual life outcomes, the number of students in Georgia who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, in 2014, more than 33,000 students did not graduate. Of those who go on to college, nearly 40 percent do not finish in four years.
To promote solutions that will give more Georgians a real chance to prosper, GCO convened a working group of education professionals as part of the College and Career Pathways Initiative. Comprised of K-12, postsecondary, and local business leaders, the group sought to contextualize barriers faced by students, parents, and schools of varying circumstances across the state.
Through a series of nine meetings, the group not only considered the academic needs of readiness, such as rigorous learning standards, and systemic barriers, such as recruiting and preparing quality teachers, the group also considered the philosophical underpinnings of readiness such as the relationship between education and fulfilling one’s purpose in life.
The following report serves as an overview of the themes and key issues covered by GCO’s College and Career Pathways working group. Major themes include the importance for Georgia to:
- Move away from big policy as a means of education reform
- Empower schools to take the reins of innovation and reform
- Help students develop healthy habits through strong relational ties
Through the lens of the themes described above, GCO plans to publish over the coming months a series of reports addressing key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia. These issues include:
- Measuring noncognitive variables in school and building small-scale relationships
- Improving accountability measures in Georgia’s schools
- Education reimagined through blended learning models
- Increasing experimentation and creativity in teacher preparation: Creating “the missing institution”
To read the full report, click here: Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia
It’s official. Governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order on February 23rd to “ban the box” on applications for state employment in Georgia. This order will remove the question about felony convictions from the initial job application and postpone it to a later point in the hiring process. This policy is intended to provide those with a criminal record a fair shot at showing employers why they are the best candidate for a job without being automatically screened from the hiring process simply because they have a felony conviction.
The Governor laid out specific hiring practices that government entities of the State of Georgia shall follow:
- Prohibit the use of a criminal record as an automatic bar to employment.
- Prevent the use of an application form that inappropriately excludes and discriminates against qualified job applicants.
- Promote the accurate use and interpretation of a criminal record.
- Provide qualified applicants with the opportunity to discuss any inaccuracies, contest the content and relevance of a criminal record, and provide information that demonstrates rehabilitation.
- Require initial disclosure on applications for sensitive governmental positions in which a criminal history would be an immediate disqualification.
Georgia is joining thirteen other states who have implemented a fair hiring policy and is the first state in the South to do so. This policy will help to remove a barrier to employment for those with a criminal record by opening up more job opportunities for which motivated returning citizens may be qualified. The state is setting the example for how county, city, and private employers could aid people leaving prison in the reintegration process by giving them a fair shot at jobs for which they are good candidates.
Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) applauds the important step taken by the Governor to “ban the box” as well as the efforts of all those who have been involved in working to increase employment opportunities for returning citizens in Georgia. In December 2013, GCO published a report recommending that the state “ban the box” and set the example for private employers by hiring and maintaining qualified returning citizens as employees. This recent executive order is the first step in seeing this fulfilled.
In addition, GCO is pleased to see several other recommendations from our December 2013 report currently being considered by the General Assembly or state agencies. These recommendations include offering a State Work Opportunity Tax Credit to incentivize employers to hire returning citizens, lifting professional license restrictions for those with felony convictions, and ensuring identification is secured prior to a person’s release from prison.
As Georgia continues to take positive steps forward in removing barriers to opportunity among those involved with the criminal justice system, the public should begin to see more examples of returning citizens who are not only making it in society, but flourishing.
The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CJRC) released their latest report this past Friday (Feb. 6th) with recommendations aimed to increase public safety, hold offenders accountable, and reduce recidivism in our state. This is the fourth consecutive report that the CJRC has produced since 2011 after being tasked by the Governor and the General Assembly to develop a smarter, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in our state.
As reflected in the report, a major focus of the CJRC and the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry (GOTSR) in 2014 was to develop a comprehensive approach to reentry so that every person leaving prison has the tools and support they need to succeed in the community.
To aid in the development of this approach, the Council and GOTSR partnered with the Michigan-based Center for Justice Innovation and reentry expert Dennis Schrantz to produce the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI). The GA-PRI is a five-year plan based largely on the evidence-based policies practices laid out in the 2005 Council of State Governments’ Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council and the 2008 National Institute of Corrections’ Transition from Prison to the Community (TPC) Reentry Handbook, but tailored specifically to meet Georgia’s reentry needs.
Georgia’s reentry team pursued federal funding to implement the GA-PRI in 2014, highlighting its “one strategy, one plan” philosophy that aims to unify planning and implementation of evidence-based practices among agencies and stakeholders. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) welcomed the smart plan and awarded Georgia four grants which totaled $6 million. Georgia’s strategy is now being featured by the BJA at training events across the county.
Details and recommendations related to the GA-PRI can be viewed in this report, as well as the complete three-year implementation plan which is located in the addendum.
Other key pieces of the report include recommendations in the following areas:
- Restore the intent of the Georgia’s First Offender Act
- Improve pre-trial diversion alternatives for certain offenders
- Extend parole eligibility for certain qualified nonviolent, recidivist drug offenders
- Extend sentences for offenders whose probation has been revoked and who wish to participate in a felony accountability court program
Juvenile Justice System
- Improve the collecting and sharing of electronic data throughout the juvenile justice system
Misdemeanor Probation System
- Address deficiencies and improve transparency and fairness in misdemeanor probation services
At GCO, we are particularly happy to see the following recommendations in the CJRC’s report which aim to increase employment opportunities for returning citizens:
- Establish licensing policies that ensure returning citizens have appropriate opportunities for licensing
- Explore opportunities for a state work opportunity tax credit to incentivize offering employment to returning citizens
- Revamp prison work details to provide experience that meets the requirements of Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) so technical college credits can be awarded for work experience gained on prison details
- Explore resources available to purchase and deploy a Department of Driver Services (DDS) mobile unit to process state IDs at state correctional facilities
Read the full report here and visit the newly created website for the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.
Successful reentry for those coming home from prison is a concept that is not easily defined.
Most often, success is defined in terms of low recidivism – that is, fewer people who return to prison within three years of their release. However, simply measuring successful reentry in terms of recidivism does not present a complete picture of what it means to successfully reintegrate. There is much more to it than a person simply not ending up back in prison. To gain a more complete picture of what it means to successfully reintegrate into society – into a community, a family, and a faith – it is helpful to a look at a real-life example of someone who has done it.
Meet Tony Kitchens – a husband, father, son, and brother – who spent 12 years behind bars in Georgia during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, Tony is an Evangelism Catalyst with the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and has consulted with the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry (GOTSR).
He is celebrating thirty years of successful reintegration this January 2015 – a journey which he says is still continuing to this day.
In honor of Tony’s thirty years of successful reintegration, Walker Faith and Character Based Prison in Northwest Georgia held a Reentry Celebration for him on January 9, 2015. The celebration provided the opportunity for family, friends, coworkers, non-profit leaders, Department of Corrections (DOC) staff, the residents of Walker and the Governor’s Office to recognize Tony for his successful journey of navigating reentry to reintegration; it also provided Tony a wonderful opportunity to give current inmates a picture of what is possible for their lives.
Tony – who was once an inmate at Walker State Prison – brings a unique perspective that carries a lot of weight among the men at Walker. He has the ability to address them as one who was once in their shoes; one who mopped the same floors they now mop and slept in the same cells they sleep in.
The Reentry Celebration took place in the prison cafeteria – a large space filled with hundreds of inmates dressed in white uniforms and nearly fifty guests. Above the stage hung large banners with seals from various state agencies, along with canvases painted by the inmates that included the seal of Walker Faith and Character Based Prison, the North American Mission Board LoveLoud logo, and a creative rendering of a line Tony is often heard quoting:
“I keep the penitentiary in my rear view and what lies ahead in my pre-view.”
A quartet comprised of inmates from Walker opened the celebration by singing the national anthem. The performance astounded everyone, including Jay Neal, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry (GOTSR), who commented that Super Bowls do not have performers who sing as well as they did. This performance was followed by an introduction of the speakers and a powerful recitation of the “Brothers Creed” in which hundreds of inmates pledged to live exemplary lives of character while in prison and once they are released into the community.
Jay Neal followed as the first of a several speakers who would present at the event. Neal spoke about the first step required for successful reintegration, which is having accountability in one’s life. He reflected on his own experience as a young man and learning the need to have accountability in place before entering the pastorate. He encouraged the inmates in attendance to take this same measure in their own lives, as it is an important aspect of living a life of good character.
The next speaker, Tony Lowden, a pastor and Project Coordinator for the Prison In-Reach Grant for the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI), built upon the principle of accountability and spoke about possibility. He recalled the biblical figure David and his calling to be a king, explaining that David had to first experience time hiding from his enemies in the Adullam Cave before he ascended to the throne. He paralleled this experience to inmates’ time in prison, calling it their “Adullam Cave,” and encouraged them to dream of being who they are meant to be – leaders of their families and communities.
Following Mr. Lowden, one of the inmates from the quartet sung R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” while another played the piano. The performance inspired the entire room and several shouts of approval could be heard from among the hundreds of inmates sitting in attendance.
Brenda McGowan, Southeast Regional Director for Prison Fellowship, came on deck third and highlighted the importance of sustainability for successful reintegration. Touching on the life of Chuck Colson and Tony Kitchens, a Colson scholar, she discussed how a transformed life is the only way a person can face the difficulties of reintegration without losing hope.
Last of all, Tony Kitchens delivered the keynote address which tied the entire message together. He drove home the point that reentry is a destination whereas reintegration is a journey. He compared reintegration to the game of baseball and explained that it is not ultimately about hitting a home run; rather, it is a day-by-day process that is slow and much more like advancing from one base to the next. First base is becoming accountable, second base is seeing and believing what is possible, and third base is sustaining that vision through a spiritual transformation of the mind and heart.
“Reentry is a destination whereas reintegration is a journey.”
Upon finishing, Tony received a standing ovation. He was presented with a personal letter from Governor Nathan Deal commending him for his excellent example for returning citizens and Georgians at large. Tony was also presented with a beautifully crafted grandfather clock that a group of inmates made out of recycled material from Walker prison – an excellent representation of Tony’s life in the way he has “redeemed the time” and used his gifts well in the community. The clock reads, “Celebrating 30 Years Free” on the front glass pane.
It was clear that the inmates at Walker were glad to see someone who is overcoming the collateral consequences of incarceration. Tony’s life serves as a powerful testimony to the redemption that is possible for returning citizens, and his message gives them hope that they can experience the same.