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.