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Re-entry from prison posts challenges
New state agency created to ease convicts transition into society
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Tiki Thurmond, 38, discussed his challenges re-entering society Friday at the Hall County Parole Office. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Tiki Thurmond said he had a good upbringing, but bad choices put him on a tougher path in life.

“There are a lot of obstacles in a person’s path, as far as a convicted felon,” said Thurmond, 38, who is two years out of prison.

After serving in prison twice, nine years apart, Thurmond has achieved stability in his life, citing his faith and a resolve to be with his family.

“I’ve been Muslim, and I just started striving more in my religion, and also wanting to be there for my kids,” he said. “I started taking it more seriously, or striving more in it. And my kids, they also help keep me grounded.”

Thurmond said he has lived in Gainesville almost 25 years, since his teens. When he came back from prison, his parents provided crucial help.

“When I came home, I stayed with my parents. They’ve been a very good support group for me,” he said.
But Thurmond found that other resources weren’t readily available.

“I don’t know the women’s side, but as far as the men’s side, as far as in the community, there’s always something to help women, whether it’s DFACS or churches, and everything else,” he said. “But for the men, it’s in a smaller number.”

The state is poised to try and remedy that and empower those leaving prison to overcome the frequent cycle of re-offending and re-entry. That pattern is costly to taxpayers via the steep price of incarceration, while offenders seek a chance for redemption.

Signaling his commitment to target re-entry next year, Gov. Nathan Deal created the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry in July. He appointed former State Trooper Braxton Cotton as executive director.

Cotton served as executive director for the Governor’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which listed emphasis on re-entry among its recommendations. Recent statewide adult and juvenile reform initiatives were based on the council’s findings.

Though overcoming the challenges of prison time can be daunting, Thurmond said defeatist attitudes are further damaging.

“People say, ‘I can’t do that.’ The thing is, you can do it,” he said. “You just have to work hard, strive hard, keep your head up and stay positive. A lot of people pray for things to be easier, but you have to pray for yourself to be stronger.”

Matthew Ellis, head of the Gainesville Parole Office, said those glum attitudes perpetuate a sense of helplessness he often sees in parolees.

“It is so much harder to convince a person that they can change, because they come in thinking, ‘I’ve always been this way, I’m never going to change,’” he said.

It’s particularly daunting for parolees who lack everyday life skills most people don’t think twice about, like writing a check or paying a cable bill, Ellis said.

Thurmond, who works for a poultry company, said he did hold down more lucrative positions in the past.

“I’ve been a supervisor before at a company that closed down a long time ago,” he said, adding he could see himself in a managerial role or owning his own business.

But it will take overcoming the stigma of having a prison record.

“A lot of places don’t want to hire felons. They’ll put it in plain sight in the newspaper, or on the Internet or wherever,” he said. “You know, maybe they just don’t want people who have committed violent crimes or theft charges?”

But he doesn’t get bogged down in the challenges, saying you have to “keep your head up and keep moving on.”
“There are some jobs, or maybe a lot of jobs, that will give you a chance, whether it’s a high-paying job or minimum wage,” he said. “But the thing is you have to crawl before you walk, and you’ve got to get out there and work this job until you find another one, and hopefully they’ll see that you have some type of stability.”

Ellis said he would like to see community leaders take on more parolees.

“One of the biggest things that I’m doing is challenging the preachers and the associate pastors and saying, ‘You’ve got 700 people in your congregation, probably 30 of them own a small business — why not hire a parolee?’” he asked. “Why not? What’s it going to hurt? If they don’t work out, fire them like anybody else. But give them a shot.”

Thurmond said work camps, while offering the opportunity to do more than languish behind bars, didn’t foster marketable skills.

“You have a lot of people in work camps, they’re working in the kitchen — they don’t really learn that much. Or you have very few that do. Or, they go out there and cut grass, stuff like that,” he said.

“If they had people in the community that would be willing to go out to these places and learn these jobs, keep them on, and get them a little more training, maybe they’d be able to use that as a reference to get another job. That kind of thing.”

In fact, those are the type of programs Walt Davis, warden at the Hall County Correction Institute, is seeking to implement. They could be partnerships with Lanier Technical College for job training and employers who lack workers, combined with drug and mental health counseling.

Those ideas sound promising, Thurmond said. “Hopefully they will do that,” he said.

A former football player, he dedicated time to volunteer as a football coach for 11 and 12-year-olds last fall.

“A lot of kids need a lot of stability, they need guidance,” he said. “If you can get out there and help these kids to be disciplined, then that discipline follows them, and hopefully they won’t make the wrong choices that I, or many others, have made.”

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