Brian Forrester is done with the iron bars, high fences and dead ends. Most of all, he doesn’t want to let his family down.
The 41-year-old Gainesville man is in a select class of Hall County inmates in the Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program, the brainchild of Warden Walt Davis.
“We’re trying to break that cycle of recidivism with these particular individuals, and these are low-level, nonviolent guys,” Davis said.
The program is set in phases, working on substance abuse counseling in the beginning and moving into work placement. Only four other inmates are in the third phase with Forrester, who is taking classes at Lanier Technical College and welding at Cottrell, a Gainesville-based car hauler manufacturer.
Since high school, Forrester has been trying to escape the system.
“I’ve done over 20 years of my life — in and out, in and out — caught up in this web that is hard to get out of,” Forrester said.
With $25 and a bus ticket after being released from other prisons, Forrester looked to find new employment after being released from prison. Strike one, he said, comes from the lack of job experience; a second strike comes from being a convicted felon.
“When you’ve got a stack of applications like this, and yours has got all these strikes against you, you’re going to the bottom of the pile,” Forrester said.
His father, Harry, would drive him around to find work to no avail.
“They wouldn’t even talk to him,” Harry Forrester said.
Brian Forrester, who has been convicted multiple times for drug charges, knew there was easy money in his old habits.
“After a month or so of trying to get a job and nothing going right, I would always get frustrated and fall back into my old ways. Misery needs company, I guess ... and that playground you were playing on is always going to be there. And it’s always going to be full,” he said.
Falling into the wrong crowd in high school, Forrester started early with drugs and alcohol. The partying life, he said, led to the wrong road.
His mother, Robbie, after hiring lawyers and buying cars for Brian, felt there had to be a cutoff.
“We quit because it wasn’t helping,” she said. “You’re just enabling him sometimes, helping him and helping him and getting him out, and he goes right back.”
With the REACT program, Robbie Forrester sees a chance for her son to get back on the straight and narrow.
“We’re hoping so much that this is going to be what might change him. And I don’t mean just him — I mean all of them that’s in there. And that’s all you can do is just hope and pray for them,” she said.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 365 in April, a law tasking the Board of Corrections to work on offender re-entry.
The first of the Hall County REACT participants arrived in March in Hall County, where many were raised.
There are 37 inmates in the program’s three stages. An obstacle, Davis said, was allowing the inmates to enroll in technical classes on time.
“We pushed them through some of this programming really hard in that first five months so that they could get to the point where they could begin Lanier Tech in August,” he said.
Some inmates, like Forrester, have been able to get enough technical training at Lanier Tech to be employed as welders, making well above minimum wage.
“I hope to be able to replicate that time and time again with additional inmates as they go through the program,” Davis said. “Only time will tell.”
Inmates have been removed from the program for fighting and for contraband, rules that cannot be broken in the program, Davis said.
“If you mess up, it’s your own fault,” Brian Forrester said. “People are going to get in this program and they’re going to mess up because ... life hasn’t beat them down enough to where they want a better opportunity.”
His new schedule begins around 8-9 a.m. at Lanier Tech, where he takes classes in math, English, reading and direct current circuits. After 2 p.m., either his family or another inmate’s family will often help to give a ride to his job at Cottrell. Starting at 3:30, he works until midnight or so before returning to the correctional institute.
Other than the learning curve with the computerized classes, Forrester said his most difficult class is math.
“It’s been so long since I’ve been in school, and I had forgotten so much stuff. It’s like pretty much starting over,” he said.
After two months of school and welding, Forrester said he’s glad to have his family supporting him. His 23-year-old son Wesley has not spent much time with his father due to the incarcerations. The REACT program allows for greater visitation and a chance to connect.
“I’m 41 now and I’ve got hope. I’ve got a lot of things going for me now,” Forrester said.
When he finishes up his first semester at Lanier Tech, Forrester will have a few thousand dollars saved in an account and only industrial maintenance classes to finish up. After getting a license and a car, he hopes to build a home and remain “established.”
“Life’s just beaten me down to the point where I’m tired. I’m tired and I want what’s been given to me and take it to the fullest,” he said.