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story.lead_photo.caption Tracey Lea, left, successfully completed the reentry program at Wings to Recovery, a transitional housing facility for reentry subjects in Union County. He is now employed full-time and self-sufficient. Pictured at the right is Kelly Knuckles, Reentry Manager for Arkansas Community Correction. - Photo by Caitlan Butler

Representatives from Arkansas Community Correction, the agency responsible for managing the state’s prison system and incarcerated people, visited El Dorado Friday to speak with the community about the barriers formerly incarcerated individuals face and the resources available locally and from the state that can help them to overcome those barriers.

“When you meet someone and you hear their story, you just want to say ‘what can I do to help,’” said ACC Reentry Manager Kelly Knuckles. “But with a small team … those ideas don’t always come to fruition, so we decided ‘let’s all get together,’ to make these projects come to life. That’s where Reentry on the Road started … and the reason we started here in El Dorado is because we’ve found such strong support in this community. It’s amazing.”

The barriers to reentry for those who were formerly incarcerated are many, but those at ACC and myriad nonprofit organizations around the state are working hard to lift up those that have been incarcerated so that they may reintegrate into society in a healthy way.

Barriers to reentry

1. Child care and child support

Why it is a barrier: When a person is incarcerated, any child support obligations they have are maintained, meaning that while they are in prison, they are still required to continue child support payments. Generally, for an incarcerated person, making those payments while they are in prison is impossible; when the person is released from prison, they are then required to make good on missed and current payments owed. This is difficult for formerly incarcerated people because there is oftentimes a gap between their leaving prison and gaining employment; they are also usually in debt as a result of missed payments. Unpaid child support can also prevent a person from obtaining an identification card or a drivers license.

How ACC helps: Parole and probation officers, as well as other members of the ACC staff, assist reentry subjects with making a new payment plan through the court system. They also assist subjects in finding employment.

2. Community support

Why it is a barrier: Those who have been incarcerated face high levels of alienation in society, making reentry even more difficult. Ardella Bearden, Certified Volunteer Manager for ACC, said formerly incarcerated people often lose their confidence upon reentry, which can lead to recidivism.

How ACC helps: ACC partners with nonprofit agencies to help build reentry subjects back up and re-introduce them to their local communities.

“You know that old saying ‘it takes a village?’ It takes a community,” Bearden said.

3. Education

Why it is a barrier: According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, half of the inmates in Arkansas enter prison without a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate. All offenders sentenced to prison in Arkansas that do not have a diploma or its equivalent are required to earn their GED while they are incarcerated; however, due to variations in education levels and length of stays, not every person who is incarcerated does leave prison with that level of education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those without a high school education have the highest levels of unemployment nationwide.

How ACC helps: ACC connects reentry subjects to adult education programs in their community. In El Dorado, South Arkansas Community College has an adult education program that includes GED preparation and testing at only $16 total.

“Research has shown that one of the greatest deterrents to recidivism is the more education somebody has. It doesn’t really matter what that education level is — a GED reduces recidivism, a college degree reduces the rate of recidivism, a Master’s degree. Whatever it is, its that accomplishment and just increasing your education,” Kimberly Sharp, ACC’s Employment Specialist, said.

4. Employment

Why it is a barrier: When a person is on parole or probation, they are generally required to find employment within a certain period of time. For those who have been incarcerated, finding employment can often be very difficult. Sharp said it is especially hard for those who have been convicted of violent or sexual offenses and those who have been incarcerated for extended periods of time.

How ACC helps: Sharp works with reentry subjects on how to act professional and how to dress for a job interview, as well as tougher topics like taking responsibility and paying taxes.

5. Family

Why it is a barrier: Ardella Bearden, ACC’s Certified Volunteer Manager, said it is important for those who are reentering society from incarceration to have a strong support structure, typically made of members of their family that were not involved in their offense. She said there is a consensus in the criminal justice community that family and social ties are crucial for reentry subjects.

How ACC helps: Bearden works directly with the families of those preparing to reenter society from incarceration. She said she teaches families about the effects incarceration can have on a person (institutionalization, alienation, etc.); shows them prison facilities so they may see for themselves the situation their family member has been in; and encourages them to attend support groups such as Al-Anon.

6. Financial obligations

Why it is a barrier: Usually, when a person is incarcerated, any debts they owed (such as a mortgage or car note) or utilities registered in their names will continue to bill to them, accruing late fees and interest dues for whatever period of time the offender is in prison. This can lead to financial catastrophe that is nearly unavoidable for those in prison and makes reentry much harder, since those who were formerly incarcerated are essentially starting their lives over, but this time in the red.

How ACC helps: While ACC cannot erase a reentry subject’s debts, they do assist them in becoming financially literate through lessons on budgeting, applying and getting approved for loans, building one’s savings, balancing one’s checkbook, opening and maintaining a checking account and more.

“As someone who came out of 17 years of banking into corrections, I fully understand that it takes credit to survive,” Knuckles said. “But you can get back out there, you can start a new life, regardless of your financial obligations. I feel with that, we are constantly looking at ways to improve.”

7. Housing

Why it is a barrier: People who have been incarcerated may have a harder time finding housing, as many landlords are reticent to rent property to them, Sharp said. Additionally, applying for a rental property can be cost prohibitive, especially when it is not guaranteed that one will be accepted. However, housing is extremely important for reentry subjects, as recidivism rates increase in homeless populations.

How ACC helps: ACC connects reentry subjects with transitional housing facilities if they are available in the subject’s community. In Union County, some reentry subjects live at the Wings of Love/Wings to Recovery facility on Industrial Road for several months, where they are able to learn about life and social skills to help them when they leave the transitional facility. ACC will also connect reentry subjects with landlords known to be willing to rent to those who have been incarcerated.

“Some people are able to parole home to mama or whatever, but if you don’t have that, where do you go? And that becomes kind of a psychological thing too, like ‘I don’t have a place to live; nobody wants me,’” Sharp said.

8. Transportation

Why it is a barrier: The barriers to reentry are all connected, Knuckles noted, and a lack of transportation can be prohibitive regardless of other circumstances, particularly in a community like El Dorado, which is not known for its walkability, and in other rural communities where there are no public transportation options. If a person on parole or probation misses a court appearance, no matter what the circumstances, they will be re-incarcerated; if a person does not show up to work, no matter the circumstances, they may be fired; if a person misses a doctor’s appointment, particularly a person who is uninsured or visiting a low-cost clinic that is overburdened, they may have to wait an indeterminable amount of time to reschedule. A lack of transportation is often an under-appreciated barrier for reentry subjects.

How ACC helps: Currently, this is one of the most difficult barriers for ACC to help reentry subjects tackle. Some reentry officers personally drive subjects to places they are required to go. Sometimes cars are donated to reentry facilities for the subjects living there. However, there is not yet any easy or definitive solution to help those reentry subjects without access to transportation.

9. Identification

Why it is a barrier: A person is not able to get a job, apartment or access other state services without identification. While every person released from an ACC facility is required to be issued at least an ‘inmate ID’ upon their release, not every reentry subject has received one of those and many require a new ID upon their release.

How ACC helps: Recent efforts has strengthened the regulations regarding inmate ID issuance. 180 days before a person is released from prison, ACC staff are required to gather any documentation that was filed when the person was first incarcerated, which typically includes an inmate ID and their birth certificate. Once a person is released, they are able to get a new ID card in their first 180 days out of prison for only $5.

“I walk out of ADC; they say here’s your bus ticket. I’m leaving, I’m no longer a number,” Knucles said. “But do I have my identification? Not always.”

10. Medical

Why it is a barrier: A person leaving prison is typically uninsured. While they are eligible for Medicaid, some require assistance signing up for the program, especially if it is online. Some of those who have been incarcerated require serious medical attention for mental health issues like substance abuse/addiction.

How ACC helps: ACC connects reentry subjects with local clinics that serve either specifically the reentering population or more generally, low-income clinics for the un- and under-insured. In El Dorado, the Interfaith Clinic serves those who do not have health insurance. ACC officers will also show reentry subjects how to apply for Medicaid.

“If you have someone who’s incarcerated and they have a history of drug use — when they get out of the facility, there’s needs that need to be met, like dental, mental health issues, disabilities,” Knuckles said.

11/12. Mental health/substance abuse

Why it is a barrier: The state of Arkansas does not have enough full-time mental health treatment services for all those dealing with a mental illness or mental health problem each year. Bearden said 43.8% of the state’s population had at least one symptom associated with a mental health problem/mental illness last year. Substance abuse is a mental health disorder. Bearden said anywhere from 63 to 83% of those arrested have a controlled substance in their system at the time of their arrest. Over 14,000 people were treated for substance abuse disorders in the state last year, Bearden said.

How ACC helps: ACC has partnered with nonprofit organizations to send licensed counselors into jails and prisons in the state. In El Dorado, the Hannah Pregnancy Resource Center sends counselors and mentors to the Union County Jail to work with prisoners on life skills and future goals. ACC also organizes Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous meetings in the prison system.

13. Technology

Why it is a barrier: Depending on the length of a person’s prison term and the time at which they were incarcerated, they could be completely ignorant of the advances in technology that continue to occur. A person may leave prison having never seen an iPhone or used the Internet. Those in prison do not have access to personal computing technology.

How ACC helps: ACC created an online portal with information and access to all the resources available to reentry subjects, called The Good Grid, and have supplied prisons in the state with at least one computer that can access that website only, which reentry subjects are then allowed to use as they make a plan for their release. Reentry officers also teach reentry subjects computer skills.

“Imagine if somebody has been in prison since iPhones came out. What is someone happened to go to prison in 1999?” Sharp said. “There is some limited access to computers when you’re incarcerated, but no internet. If you’ve never been on the internet, do you even know how to get to a website? You don’t just walk out of prison automatically knowing how to do this stuff.”

Moving on

Tracey Lea spent a number of years in prison after a drug possession conviction. Upon his release last summer, he moved into Wings to Recovery facility in Union County. He now works as a welder and fabricator for Union County and is self-sufficient. He said having resources like Wings to Recover and others working in the reentry slice of the SHARE Foundation’s Violence Intervention Plan was invaluable.

“I feel like I’ve come a long ways,” Lea said. “There’s nothing but good that’s come out of it, the whole time I was there. All you’ve gotta do is want it. I’ve been clean and sober for almost two years now.”

In Union County, several organizations work with reentry subjects to help them re-acclimate to society and contribute to the community and have received grants from the SHARE Foundation to up their ability to help. Those include CrossLife Church through their SHIFT recovery ministry; Wings to Recovery through their Christ-based transitional housing and reentry program; Hannah Pregnancy Resource Center through their mentoring program for those in jail; The CALL of Union County through their family reunification program and trauma-based parenting classes; and more.

Those reentering the community from prison can also access the Good Grid, which includes access to resources outside of Union County and additional information about local resources, once they get out; one can visit goodgrid.com to learn more.

“So what can we do to help in our community? You all have such a strong community support here, I think it’s phenomenal,” Knuckles said. “But if you know of someone who has a resource, a service they can provide, please call on them. We couldn’t do it without those who have the passion in their heart.”

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