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Hall County wants to release prisoners just once
County seeks to cut inmate return rate one bite at a time
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Hall County has applied for another federal grant to address re-entry into society for prisoners leaving the penal system.

Walt Davis, warden of the Correctional Institute in Hall County, said the program, still in its planning stages, would be targeted at nonviolent offenders in minimum and medium security prisons.

“We’re taking it one step back in the system and dealing with them as inmates. And here’s the big thing we’re doing differently: We’re focusing on county residents that are in the state prison system,” he said.

County Administrator Marty Nix, who helped write the grant applications, said it’s a tough start for newly released inmates as it is.

“The fact of the matter is, when they’re released from prison, the Department of Corrections gives them some clothes, $25 and a bus ticket. Well, that’s not a very sustainable model, we think,” he said.

But tackling such a stark reality can seem overwhelming, Davis said.

“We’ve got this big problem, and it’s like eating the elephant. Where do you start? Well, you start one bite at a time,” he said.

To help local jurisdictions, The Department of Justice awards planning grants for re-entry programs totaling $50,000. In March, Hall also applied for a DOJ grant to study and oversee a re-entry program.

“This grant also has some money for planning, but also money that if awarded is for the implementation,” Nix said.

Funds for implementation from the state would total $700,000.

Since becoming warden, Davis has applied his background as the former clemency director with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to help craft the county’s pursuit of the grants.

“I had a lot of exposure and access, and had worked in the field of re-entry prior to coming to Hall County,” he said. “In fact, in 2007, 2008, when the original Georgia re-entry project was started, myself and two others went out to Indianapolis to present our findings on Georgia’s re-entry program. So I’ve been working in the field of re-entry for at least half a decade.”

He said for a person going through the criminal justice system — from arrest to sentencing to release — there was a notable gap of attention.

“You have people who go through the courts system, so a lot of that is focused on the front end.” he said. “And then you have a lot of focus, from a re-entry perspective, on the back end. So you have the courts, you have prison, you have probation and parole. We don’t have anything, from a re-entry perspective, focused not on the very tail end of the system, but while they are still an inmate.”

And beyond simple supervision, empowering inmates with skills and employment opportunity is a key factor in staying out of prison, Davis said.

“What I saw was a unique opportunity to say, what if we took Hall County residents who are in state prison, brought them back to the Hall County facility, and provided them with the opportunity to address their needs, from a substance abuse perspective, from a housing perspective, and most important, locational and educational employment perspective. That’s what our focus is really going to be,” he said. “The No. 1 cause of re-entry is lack of sustainable employment. And the key word there is sustainable. You can’t support your family, much less yourself, on a job at McDonalds. Our goal is to have quality job opportunities, not just quantity.”

Davis said the network of support in the county makes it an ideal place for the pilot program.

“We have a unique opportunity here in Hall County. We have support from the courts. We have support from the administrators. We have support from the state. We have technical schools, educational opportunities right here, and an employment community that’s willing to assist us,” he said.

He cited a recent need for 15 welders in the county by a chamber of commerce representative as a real world example.

“Those aren’t positions that are going to be taken by somebody in the free world because there is nobody to take those positions,” he said. “We’re not supplanting those jobs, we’re filling a need. We want to fill those needs within the local employment area and with the private sector for those jobs.”

Thinking outside the box, he said, David cited potential “green” industry job opportunities.

“Lanier Tech has started a solar program. We’re going to talk to them about, when we do some renovations to the facility here, putting some solar panels on the facility here,” he said. “Not only is there a cost savings for the county, but we can train the inmates on the solar electronics. Think about that type of high level job trainings. That’s what I mean when I talk about quality.”

Davis said the planned program focuses additionally on addressing the mental health issues that may have led to breaking the law in the first place.

“Giving them the support they need. Substance abuse counseling, we’ll be drug testing them regularly so employers know they have someone coming in that’s clean,” he said. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy, Moral recognition therapy. Because a lot of these guys come in here with thinking errors. They think of things differently than other people. We can restructure their thinking, we teach them more pro-social habits. And we’ll be doing that at night. Educational-vocational component, working them through the transitional center during the day, and then at night, programming.”

Implementing the key concept of targeting local offenders, Davis said, would actually require permission to bypass a 50-year-old state policy that mandates offenders not be imprisoned locally.

“I put a proposal together, and asked the commissioner of correction to consider changing their policy and procedures that had been in place for 50 years. And that is they will not, by policy, if you are from Hall County and commit a crime, you will not get sent back to Hall County,” he said.

Reasons for that policy include concern for contact with victims, escape risks, introduction to contraband in the facility, amongst others, Davis said.

But he’s hopeful the benefits of re-entry program is enough to outweigh those risks and allow the pilot program to go forward in Hall, particularly with the need so great.

“We’ve got to start thinking about how we manage the criminal justice system differently. We’ve got to,” he said.

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