A clean slate

For 23 years, Gerald Jones could only imagine a fulfilling day at work and returning to a home of his own.

For more than two decades, he shared a cell with other men, took up welding, and patiently waited to be released from prison after his conviction as an accomplice to a murder and attempted armed robbery at age 22.

Mr. Jones said he encountered countless men who cycled in and out of the prison system during his imprisonment. He refused to follow in their footsteps.

"So many guys would come and go and come and go, and I didn't want to be another number," he said. "They would lose their jobs. They went astray, and they had to do something to take care of home."

Mr. Jones, 48, has not returned to prison since his release more than three years ago in part because of the six months he spent at the Augusta Transitional Center.

"Being there really helped me free my mind," he said. "They taught me how to handle myself, how to be in job interviews. That's what a lot of us need."

Georgia has 56,000 state prisoners. Right now, 2,870 residents live in the 15 transitional centers across Georgia, but more centers would benefit former prisoners and the taxpayers financially supporting their stay at state prisons, said Jack Koon, a transitional center coordinator for the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Offenders released from transitional centers are less likely to return to prison, Mr. Koon said. In 2005, 19 percent of inmates who lived in transitional centers returned to prison after three years compared with almost 29 percent who returned to prison who were not in one.

Because of the centers' success, many states about 10 years ago increased the number of programs offered in transitional centers to help inmates re-enter society, said Anna Crayton, the deputy director of research for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Since then, funding has increased for transitional programs, but more is needed, Ms. Crayton said.

Nearly 9 million inmates cycle in and out of state and federal facilities throughout the year, according to the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington.

"In any state funding is always an obstacle, but there's a realization that these types of programs facilitate success and prepare these individuals," Ms. Crayton said. "The research connected with re-entry programming shows that it works."

More transitional centers could help create an even greater decline in the number of offenders who return to prison, Mr. Koon said. Beyond the incentive for inmates, transitional centers are also beneficial to taxpayers, Mr. Koon said.

"Since residents pay a fee for room and board and pay for their own toiletries, it's not as costly," he said. "I think in general the more we can have to reduce recidivism the better. Right now, we're just working on expanding the number of beds at our transitional centers."

Mr. Koon said he would like to see more centers, but that decision is left up to the state legislature, which controls the department's purse strings.

So far, funding over the past several years has been allocated to expand existing centers, not build new ones.

The expansion and conversion of former prison annexes into transitional centers has allowed more inmates to participate in re-entry programs.

"Whenever we build or expand, it has to go through (the Legislature)," he said.

Expansion plans

As superintendent of the Augusta Transitional Center on Taylor Street, Ronald Brawner sees the benefits of a transitional program every day. He's been there since it opened seven years ago.

"Years ago, we would just lock them up and throw away the key," Mr. Brawner said. "Now, these guys want a fresh start. They want to change pace. Without having some sort of transition, they leave the prison and move in right next door without having the tools."

Offenders spend between six months to three years in the facilities acquiring job training, assistance with job placement, cognitive programming and the support of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Eighty percent of the referrals to transitional centers come from the parole board, Mr. Koon said. The candidates are required to have a clean disciplinary record three months before their release and be physically and mentally able to work upon leaving.

"If a person has meaningful work and a place to stay, they are less likely to commit crimes," Mr. Koon said.

The Department of Corrections plans to increase the number of beds by 30 percent in the next year, he said. There are also plans to introduce the Matrix Relapse Prevention Program, which will assist offenders with drug problems.

Another plan also could help. In April 2007, Congress passed the Second Chance Act in an effort to offer grant opportunities to jurisdictions across the country. Part of the money would go toward re-entry initiatives including mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing and employment services.

The nearly $400 million slated to fund the grants between 2008 and 2012 has not been allocated, Ms. Crayton said.

"It's hard to tell how much funds will go toward the act considering the economic crises," she said. "Since the act was passed hopefully more monies will be distributed for re-entry initiatives by next year."

The opportunity

Weldon Floyd, a resident at the Augusta Transitional Center, said he is thankful for the support he found in Augusta after being convicted of driving under the influence and inflicting serious injury by a vehicle in Savannah.

He met many men who could have benefited from a transitional program but were not given the opportunity.

"A lot of them have nowhere to go. They have no family or their family has died by the time they get out," he said. "This would be a great place for them."

Mr. Floyd, 37, has developed a deeper Christian faith since he moved to the transition center two years ago.

He now works in maintenance at the center and sings in the male choir. He hopes to be released and placed on parole soon.

Mr. Jones is engaged and looking forward to a summer wedding. He has worked for University Linen for the past three years.

Trading his quiet evenings at his townhouse listening to Johnnie Taylor records for prison is unimaginable, he said.

"I don't even think about doing wrong," Mr. Jones said.

"The guys who get out and go back give us all a bad reputation. It really comes back to wanting this for yourself. This is the life I wanted."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

19%

Offenders who return to prison within three years of their release from transitional centers

28.9%

Offenders who return to prison within three years of their release who didn't go through a transitional program

2,870

Residents in 15 transitional centers across Georgia

6 to 8

Months residents live in transitional centers before returning to society, on average

$1.5 million

Average cost of operating a transitional center, including personnel and operating expenses

Convicts decrease their odds of returning to prison if they enter a transitional program after they are released. Advocates say more inmates should get that chance.