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Liberty looking to introduce re-entry program for released prisoners
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Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas addresses the audience at the Feb. 9, stakeholders meeting regarding a prison re-entry program. Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes said the program is needed.

Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes, jail administration and probation officers introduced the idea for a countywide prisoner re-entry program during a meeting last week at the Liberty County Justice Center.

The program would help parolees and recently released convicted felons assimilate into society by providing viable employment opportunities and, on occasion, temporary housing for those exiting the prison system and entering the local community.

The proposed county model basically would mirror Gov. Nathan Deal’s Criminal Justice Re-Entry Initiative, which was launched in February 2014 and is overseen by Jay Neal, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.

The meeting was called to introduce local businesses, churches, nonprofit organizations and other viable resources to the idea. The intent was to communicate the importance of collaboration needed to formally organize the program and identify possible funding sources.

“This is an introduction to something that is very near and dear to my heart,” Sikes said. “When I was on the campaign trail in 2010, I had an individual walk up to me and say,” ‘I just got out of prison. I have no place to go, I can’t get a decent job because I am a convicted felon. What do I do?’”

“It not only broke my heart, but I didn’t have the words to answer him. … That is something that we, as a society, have to address, and that is what we are here for tonight,” he continued.

Liberty County Jail Administrator Jeff Hein reported that 104 inmates were released in Liberty County in fiscal year 2014.

Some former prisoners have no family to help them or homes in the area to return to. They are released with the clothing on their back and a small amount of money but nowhere to go. Others return to their homes but find it hard to reconnect with family. Often, the inability to secure employment due to prison records forces released inmates to revert to old habits and, eventually, they end up back in jail.

This is a very important meeting,” Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said. “When those persons who have been incarcerated from felonies or misdemeanors and they come back home, they come back to our city … we must take care of them. We need to give these folks a second chance.”

Michele Freeney-Washington, a probation officer who is working to develop the framework for the Liberty County Georgia Prison Re-entry Program, said the state launched pilot programs in Savannah, Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Columbus and Albany.

She said the framework exists in three phases, the first of which is preparing inmates for release. That is done while they still are in prison and addresses completion of their GED, if needed, as well as assessing possible basic needs. Phase two also is done before release and evaluates the structure and support inmates will need from families, friends and church groups once they’ve completed their sentences.

Phase three is release back into the community.

“This is where the collaborative efforts come into play,” Freeney-Washington said. “Our mission with this state program is to utilize the state guidelines and framework to create a strong collaborative program tailored to Liberty County.”

Attendees at the informational meeting included several Liberty County commissioners and various local church leaders.

All favored moving forward with the process. The first steps are setting up a search committee and securing funding for the two positions that would oversee the program, and procuring the county commission’s acceptance of the program as a legal organization.

Thomas recognized the work already being done by Daisy Jones of the Hinesville Homeless Coalition and Dr. Alicia Kirk of the Kirk Healing Center in getting many released prisoners into temporary housing.

The church organizations were recognized for their efforts in mentoring and helping released parolees and their families.

Freeney-Washington said Georgia has a recidivism rate of nearly one in three. She added many employers simply discard the application once they read the applicant was a former inmate. She said more work needs to be done to educate business and industry leaders on special bonding programs and incentives available for hiring former offenders.

“I take no shame in telling you that I have a son that was formally incarcerated,” Commission Chariman Donald Lovette said. “We should be willing and ready to help them turn their lives around and give them gainful employment and a place in society. Those are our boys and girls … and I am told that sometimes there is no one to greet them when they come home, and some have no place to go and don’t know what they are going to do. Liberty County should position itself and open its doors.”

Thomas asked for proposed budgets for the two positions necessary to get the program off the ground. He said the county commission will review the information, and he adamantly supports the idea. The mayor said he would like to see the plan move forward quickly.

Local re-entry plans can benefit from state funds and grants. Georgia was awarded $6.75 million in federal grant money to support re-entry services. The grants were administered by the U.S. Department of Justice to the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

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