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Man rebuilds life as prison program reaches 5th anniversary
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Inmates of the Hall County Correctional Institute stand beside their bunks Thursday, March 14, 2019. It’s been five years since the creation of the Reentry Accountability Court Transition, or REACT, Program. - photo by Scott Rogers

The tiniest aspects of life taken for granted are what Walter Kirk missed the most behind bars.

Calling his children on the phone, giving his granddaughter a hug every once in a while or just being a part of their everyday lives.

As he nears his parole date, Kirk said he’s not yet the man he wants to be, but far from what he was.

Kirk is one of nine graduates of Hall County’s Reentry Accountability Court Transition program, a four-phase system meant to bring local residents back to their hometown and give them the skills to reintegrate into society.

“There’s some people you just ain’t going to be able to help no matter what, but it gives you the tools to be able to get back into society and start over, which is what you have to do. That’s the hardest part: starting over,” Kirk said.

Hall County Correctional Institution Warden Walt Davis said there have been 197 participants over the past five years since 2014.

After the first year, officials realized that an overwhelming majority of those in the program face substance abuse problems. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council awarded the prison with a $50,000 grant in 2015 for residential substance abuse program.

“These guys are admitting that they started using drugs when they were 12, 13 years old. It’s a lifetime issue for them,” Davis said.

“It’s all about how you handle those stresses…”

When Kirk first arrived back in Hall County in December 2017, he thought someone must have made a mistake.

It had been three and a half years since he had seen his family, not wanting them to drive across the state to see their father in some South Georgia prison.

“From 13, 14 years old, I was drinking. I had kids, church and stayed clean for a long time. I hurt my shoulder on the job. Ended up getting on pills, and pretty much one thing led to another,” Kirk said.

Kirk was convicted of robbery by intimidation and given a 20-year sentence with the first six years behind bars.

The substance abuse treatment program has given him the tools to fall back on when times get tough.

“It’s all about how you handle those stresses in situations that will decide what choice you make, whether you rely on friends, family, God. Or you try to numb yourself out, which is what most addicts do,” he said.

Roughly six people from the District Attorney’s Office, probation/parole, corrections and the judiciary meet to decide on potential candidates, who are nonviolent offenders from Hall and Dawson counties.

Since 2014, 26 participants have been revoked. Davis said the No. 1 reason has been substance abuse, often meth.

When talking with others across the prison system, Kirk said he has found a substantial number of prisoners with substance abuse issues suffered some sort of trauma such as childhood sexual abuse.

“They’re ashamed of something that they couldn’t control, and that’s the worst part about it, I think,” he said.

Time behind bars has led Kirk to people afraid to get back to society, doing anything they can to stay where they are. Others got a taste of freedom and landed right back behind bars, unable to adapt back into normal life.

More resources are needed

Looking back on the past five years, Davis said the biggest need is resources.

The REACT team has met with the Georgia Statistical Analysis Center for a long-term research evaluation, which will take another year before a report is published.

“We’re really trying to determine empirically if in fact we are doing some things that are having an effect long term on recidivism that are better than other programs,” Davis said.

Davis said a goal would be to have the program statutorily recognized, meaning they could put Hall County’s REACT model in other jurisdictions and then potentially receive funding through Georgia’s accountability courts council.

Now living at the transitional center before his parole date, Kirk can enjoy some creature comforts like ice cream after his shift as line leader at Cottrell, a Gainesville-based welding business.

Hall County’s Reentry Accountability Court Transition program

197 participants over 5 years

26 revoked

9 have successfully completed (completed all four years)

162 that are currently in the program in one of the four phases