Virginia Gilmore leads a seemingly ordinary life for a fast-food worker. She wakes up at noon, showers, dresses and heads to her job as a night shift manager at the Wendy’s in Clarkesville every Sunday through Friday.
This is a typical routine for a hard-working person, except for one thing: Gilmore is in prison.
In April 2008, Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto opened its transitional center, which allows inmates with a good-behavior record to work at jobs outside of the facility. Its goal is to allow inmates to prepare, mentally and financially, for release into society, while mitigating some of the incarceration costs.
Gilmore has been a resident of the program for 22 months.
“It gives you more freedom,” she said. “There is more responsibility and, actually, it really makes you grow up. You realize what the important things in life are.”
The center houses a maximum of 117 inmates and generally stays close to capacity. All of the prisoners are women who work in various jobs across Northeast Georgia, including those in restaurants and factories. Each prisoner is required to pay for her room, board, transportation and medical costs in addition to budgeting for her own personal expenses.
Cassie Reid, a center resident for 15 months, is a waitress at the Huddle House in Cleveland.
“It really is helping you get ready to go out into the world,” she said. “If you’re going straight from prison to the outside world, you may fall back into some of your bad traits.
“But if you’re in the center and you have time to learn some responsibility, then you want to do better.”
Transitional Center Superintendent Tim Mauldin said the program not only helps relieve some of the housing costs, but helps reduce the number of people who return to prison after their release. Though no study has been done on the specific program, similar ones at other facilities have seen about an 18 percent decrease in recidivism, he said.
But for Gilmore and Reid, the benefits are much more personal. Both inmates have multiple children, and, because they have proven to be trustworthy, they are allowed to leave the facility once a week for visits.
“I have four kids, so it’s nice to go home and see them,” Reid said. “I can help raise them a little and that is always good. Being a better mom will be the biggest thing for me.”
Getting into the transitional center is not easy.
Inmates who are new to the program must prove themselves by spending the first 30 days in regular prison attire, performing a minimum of 140 hours of community service around the facility and taking orientation classes. The requirements help prison officials decide who is ready to work outside the prison and what her individual strengths are.
Job interviews are arranged by prison employees, but inmates must attend their own interview and get hired on their own.
The center makes up roughly 12 percent of the overall capacity of the prison. Inmates at the center are separated from the rest of the facility, because they are allowed more luxuries than the average prisoner. Those who successfully join the program enter a culture markedly different from the general population.
Gilmore spent four years in Polaski State Prison, about an hour south of Macon, for vehicular homicide before transferring to the transitional center in Alto.
“These people have responsibility and they have kind of calmed down,” she said. “At Polaski nobody cared. They didn’t care what they did or what they said or who they hurt.
“Here they don’t want to go back and so they do the things they need to do not to go back.”
All prisoners have access to counselors. Gilmore and Reid said their counselors pushed them to join the transitional program.
“My counselor talked the program up a lot,” Reid said. “They really try to help make better decisions, and I probably wouldn’t have gone into the program without her.”
Aside from the work, each prisoner has chores around the center consisting of cleaning. Each cell is inspected daily. Counseling, support groups, motherhood programs and religious services also are available to the inmates. In the past, some residents have obtained their GED or attended a trade school while working.
Mauldin explained many of the center’s residents choose to stay in the area and keep the same jobs after release. Gilmore said she hopes to stay at Wendy’s, but wants to go to school and better herself in other ways. Reid, who obtained her GED in the program, is planning to return to the job she held before going to prison.
Both said they are different people and attribute that change to the transitional center.
“It has reached down inside of me and pulled a new person out,” Gilmore said. “You learn to enjoy the small things in life.
“You think differently and act differently. Before I wouldn’t think about the things I did, now it is just different.”