As Canopy Atlanta’s inaugural Reporting Resident, Bankhead Senior Fellow Ann Hill Bond, explores whether DeKalb County residents who have been incarcerated can be defined by more than their crimes and punishments. Her new reporting begins with a personal essay that helps explain why that community listening response resonated with her and features four oral history interviews with residents about navigating life after prison.
Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members—Canopy Atlanta Fellows—to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Dominique Harris, a CA South DeKalb Fellow, helped report this story. Because of his unique connection to this subject matter, he contributed not only his personal experience but also his reporting skills to get to the bottom of this.
As incarcerated people from South DeKalb prepare for their release from jail or prison, they must figure out how to re-enter society, starting by obtaining personal documents like state IDs, birth certificates, and social security cards. They must find healthcare, food, housing, and employment. For this population, sometimes known as returning citizens1, post-prison reentry programs at transitional centers can provide much-needed support, including help finding affordable housing, getting proper identification, and even accessing counseling.
A reentry program could also offer job training that begins during a sentence, such as specialist training in diesel mechanics or welding, says William Sabol a criminal justice and criminology professor at Georgia State University. Looking around for myself, I saw that programs in Clayton and Fulton counties even provide vocational or on-the-job training and have built-in workforces that can lead to permanent employment.
In 2020, Sabol, former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice, received a $1.4 million grant to evaluate reentry programs in Georgia. Such programs can be as small in scale as nonprofits or churches, he says.
Although the full results of Sabol’s evaluation likely won’t be available until 2024, he says that it can be difficult to get a full count of reentry programs, let alone research them to the fullest extent, because programs vary across community, county, state, and federal levels.
During my community listening outreach for CA’s South DeKalb issue, a DeKalb County Sanitation Division employee expressed concern for his coworkers who had not been receiving adequate pay because of their past convictions. That conversation made me curious about places in South DeKalb that might advocate for people like those workers and welcome them back into the community.
At first glance, my findings were slim. I immediately realized that I needed to walk this journey with someone who was formerly incarcerated to really understand their needs and whether these facilities existed.
I found that partner in South DeKalb Fellow Dominique Harris, who was released back into DeKalb County after a 12-year sentence that ended in 2020. He told me that reentry into society was a challenge and that isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
Even though Harris had been sentenced by DeKalb County Courts and served his time as a ward of the state of Georgia, he could only find employment assistance at the Atlanta Transitional Center in Fulton County.
There are only two transitional centers available for returning male citizens in the entire metro Atlanta region: Both the Atlanta Transitional Center (off Ponce De Leon Avenue, offering 257 beds) and Clayton County Transitional Center (in Forest Park, with 376 beds) only accept male inmates with a maximum of 42 months left on their sentences. Metro Transitional Center (off Constitution Road, with 235 beds) serves women who are nearing the end of their sentence.
It’s worth mentioning that over the past 30 years, the federal government has released over 30,000 inmates to Georgia. And in 2022 alone, the federal government released 1,074 inmates to the state. Clearly, the need is greater than the supply.
Each facility has its own requirements meant to help participants reintegrate back into the community and gain social and employment skills, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
But there are limits to what transitional centers can do. Harris remembers how difficult it was to navigate the reentry system when he needed a way to get to and from work. “The job I was assigned to required me to walk 20 minutes downtown or even catch the bus downtown,” he says.
So he applied for transportation assistance at Atlanta Transitional Center. But he feared the waiting game to get approved could cost him this job opportunity.
“It was difficult to get assistance from the center,” Harris says, adding, “The longer you waited, the longer you took chances in not getting the job.”
Instead of waiting for his paperwork to clear for a MARTA voucher, Harris got bus fare from his family, sidestepping some red tape.
“That was a big help to me, as far as getting out of the transitional house faster,” he says. “A lot of guys didn’t have family to help and had to wait on the system and the process that goes into getting a MARTA card.”
It seems to me that such people could benefit from independent community programs that provide a more holistic approach to reentry, operating outside of the federal, state, and local governments.
Near West End, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Green ReEntry program helps both high-risk youth and those leaving prison find new jobs, secure transitional housing, and receive on-the-job construction training. The program also provides mental health counseling, spiritual development, and life skills instruction in hopes of reducing the recidivism rate.
But again, I couldn’t find anything like this in DeKalb County.
Perhaps this is due to a shift in priorities: Sabol tells me that since 2020, DeKalb County has reallocated federal funds for independent reentry programs to accountability courts2 and preventative measures.
Since 2007, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has granted DeKalb County nearly $15 million to assist with prevention and second-chance programs. During two years of supervised programming, the DeKalb County Accountability Courts “offer intensive, cognitive behavior, evidence-based treatment programs” to formerly incarcerated residents.
In 2019, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston started STRIDE, Stopping Trends of Repeat Incarceration with Diversion and Education, a prevention program for 17-24-year-olds. Boston dismisses non-violent charges against those who participate in the year-long program, where requirements range from full-time work or school to acts of restorative justice.
“We hope that there’s a way to basically deal with any issues that might be present in their life that are driving their decisions that ultimately find them in the criminal justice system,” Boston says.
When I asked for data about DeKalb County’s recidivism rate, a representative with Boston’s office said that recidivism rates complicated to track: Residents can later get arrested in other jurisdictions, and counties “do not usually notify one another about arrests of subjects with whom they had previous contact.”
After a pilot program with six graduates in fall 2020, STRIDE saw 12 graduates in spring 2022. “Those who graduated last year, after almost 18 months, 75 percent of people have no new arrests, and 100 percent have no felony arrests,” Boston says.
While such preventative measures are helpful to many, they still leave others in South DeKalb at a loss as they look for transitional homes, employment, and transportation assistance outside of county courts.
The state of Georgia does run its own larger-scale reentry program: The Department of Community Supervision assigns reentry coordinators to identify community-specific service providers and resources for formerly incarcerated residents. But these programs don’t directly house returning citizens, provide financial housing assistance, or ensure employment. Harris needed all of the above—and more.
“They had programs that are like the THOR (Transitional Housing for Offender Reentry) program, with rooming houses and PadSplits—roommate situations,” Harris says. “They couldn’t help us find private renters because no one wanted to deal with felons. That’s a community situation. I can’t say that they didn’t try. They gave us leads, but those would be cold calls.”
I wondered what would happen if Harris were to go about this reentry alone, like so many have to because of the lack of adequate resources. So we spent the better part of one morning calling reasonably priced apartment complexes in South DeKalb, such as Hidden Valley Apartments in Decatur, some of which touted second-chance programs. Call after call, the denials came: “You are welcome to fill out an application; however, we reserve the right to not approve the application.” Nobody would rent to someone with a record. Now I understood why Harris resorted to living with his cousin.
This process for me, a person who has never had to experience reentry, was tedious and hopeless. However, the help of community members like Harris made understanding the process easier. It wasn’t me holding his hand; instead, him holding mine helped me understand the need for more investment in our community members as they return to society.
Here’s what I would go back and tell the DeKalb County Sanitation worker: With each passing day’s uncertainty of their future, formerly incarcerated residents have had to form their own Underground Railroad to fight against recidivism in DeKalb County. They have found their way through their willpower, innovation, and understanding of the system. And their undervalued knowledge should be the essential bridge for the community and government to serve this population properly.
“The community has to understand these are citizens coming back to society every year,” says Harris. “We need help with reentry and more involvement with the community to rekindle the connection between that citizen [and] the community.”
1 The term “returning citizen” is more favorable amongst academics and activists, as opposed to terms like “formerly incarcerated,” “ex-convicts,” “felons,” “inmates,” or “prisoners.” However, some debate whether “returning citizen” is appropriate. When one is no longer in federal, state, or local custody, they are still not fully accepted citizens of the community, as their rights are limited and their sense of living would be altered as long as this title is attached to their name.
2 These include the DeKalb County Drug Court that was established in July 2002, the DeKalb County Felony Mental Health Court established in 2016, and the DeKalb County Veterans Treatment Court also established in 2016. These courts are set in place for an alternative sentencing program designed for people with felony convictions.
Editor: Christina Lee
Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso
Canopy Atlanta Reader: Mariann Martin, Ada Wood
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