Although the inmates’ emotions were sometimes imperceptible as they learned they were the inaugural class in a first-of-its-kind educational and vocational training program for Georgia prisoners, one man voiced joy at being back home.
“Glad to be back here,” the inmate said, as Warden Walt Davis emphasized their unique situation being close to home.
“There are some good things you have being in Hall County. You’ll have visitation and the opportunity to see your families,” Davis said. “It’s an exception to the rule, so now you guys have to be the exception.”
The first nine inmates to be a part of Hall County’s new Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program arrived Tuesday at the Hall County Correctional Institute.
The men were introduced to Davis and key players from probation and parole offices no more than 10 minutes after finding out they would participate in the pilot REACT program.
The program represents a special exemption in policy by the Department of Corrections, allowing inmates to serve a sentence in their county of residence. It was a key accommodation for the program, which seeks to connect inmates to local resources and a steady job prior to being released from state custody.
And family involvement will be a significant component, Davis said. REACT programmers will be reaching out to participants’ families to ensure they are “on board” and not “enablers” of bad behavior.
The geographical spread of the men was largely why the correctional institute couldn’t effectively notify the men earlier, Davis said.
“They were in facilities all over the state, and there was no effective way of informing them they were going to be participants in the program because a lot of people don’t know about the program,” Davis said.
Some of the particulars are still being worked out, but the essential elements are getting inmates the counseling, education and work training they need before re-entering society, forging local community connections to maintain gainful employment and well-being.
Classes will teach things from basic life smarts — conflict resolution, interpersonal relationship aptitude — to more intensive skills, such as developing craftsmanship in a specialized area through a Lanier Technical College partnership.
The participants were hand-picked based on key factors including the nonviolent nature of their offenses (most are serving drug, theft or burglary convictions), Hall or Dawson County permanent residency and a tentative parole or release date sometime next year, Davis said.
“They had to have enough time in prison to benefit from the program,” he said.
Davis, who stood inches in front of the participants as they sat attentively in two rows, said he saw a “range of emotions” as he detailed the program.
“I saw confusion. I saw excitement. I saw one guy had some tears in his eyes,” he said.
Davis said he noticed the emotion particularly when Chief Parole Officer Matthew Ellis spoke about forgiving not just others but themselves for actions that may have caused the inmates to lose friends, family and their freedom, and Davis repeated the message of leaving the past behind.
“Whatever you’ve got carrying around with you, that baggage — you need to leave that on the curb and move forward. Right now,” he said. “You’re never going to be given a better opportunity in your lives than the commitment these people are making.”
Ellis also said to take full advantage of the resources that would be readily available because of their unique position.
“Work nonstop. Don’t take a minute off,” he said. “Learn everything you possibly can learn.”
Davis stressed being in the program didn’t mean bad behavior wouldn’t reflect on their parole hearings. And while judges and parole and probation officers expressed their support for the men, they emphasized that success hinged on accountability and personal responsibility.
The program is not a “handout” but a “hand up,” Davis said.
All of the men, plus a tenth absent on a probation hearing matter, will likely sign the contract to participate today, even if they are less enthusiastic than others, Davis said.
Why? The alternative is returning to state prison, he said.