New initiative aims to keep ex-cons out of jail

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 11:45pm

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.

 

7 Comments on this post:

By: BEOWULF on 3/3/10 at 9:02

BEOWULF: Sounds like a program we should all get behind. People w/out hope almost always return to what they know, however wrong it may be. Let's help these American Citizens. A congruous program should provide immediate bus rides for ILLEGAL ex-cons to Oaxaca.

By: Vicki Harvey on 3/3/10 at 9:25

www.leavingthecocoon.net is the non profit that Shellie is a part of today. I'm the Executive Director, Vicki Harvey. We are always looking for men and women to mentor those in prison and then upon reentry. We have programs in place and ready for ones to sign up to make a difference in someone's life and the lives of their families. If you are afraid to go into the prisons we have a new program starting with the ex-offender trying to get reestablished into society. We have a place for everyone. Please contact Vicki at 615-403-1313.

By: LTCMENTOR on 3/3/10 at 9:51

My name is Colleen Barrett; I am the Program Coordinator for the Davidson County Sherriff's Office through Leaving the Cocoon. I also serve as a mentor for several wonderful women who are ex-offenders and recovering addicts. When I first became involved with this organization I knew God had directed me to the path He wanted for my life. Not only have I seen positive changes in the lives of the women I mentor, but have seen a greater change in my life. Society and family tends to turn their backs on women when they find themselves in trouble. Leaving the Cocoon comes in to offer support of being a friend, a listening ear, life coach, teaching these wonderful women a new way of thinking and looking at life. Even though they may be good girls gone bad, we teach they do not have to remain bad. Not only is Vicki Harvey our Executive Director, she is my mentor and has become one of my best friends. This program is a wonderful way to make the dash in your life count!

By: Theresa Lode on 3/3/10 at 1:17

I've seen firsthand the effectiveness of Leaving the Cocoon. Vicki's passion and love for these women simply shines....and it is reflected in the smiles of the mentees.

The numbers speak for themselves as do the lives that are changed through this program.

I encourage others to stand behind Vicki's efforts in whatever way they are able.

If you're unable to mentor perhaps you can give some of your time or make a donation. And of course, prayer support is always welcome. :)

By: Shellie B. on 3/3/10 at 1:56

I just wanted to reiterate on the issues at hand. The need for mentoring is beyond great. I encourage any one who has thought about or would consider mentoring to give it a try. There really is hope for EVERYONE! That no one is hopeless and evryone is worthy of life as our Maker intended. I was grateful to be part of the solurtion and no longer part of the problem.

By: Shellie B. on 3/3/10 at 1:57

I just wanted to reiterate on the issues at hand. The need for mentoring is beyond great. I encourage any one who has thought about or would consider mentoring to give it a try. There really is hope for EVERYONE! That no one is hopeless and evryone is worthy. I am grateful tp be part of the solution and no longer part of the problem.

By: Shellie B. on 3/3/10 at 1:58

I just wanted to reiterate on the issues at hand. The need for mentoring is beyond great. I encourage any one who has thought about or would consider mentoring to give it a try. There really is hope for EVERYONE! That no one is hopeless and evryone is worthy of life.