Ex-offender reentry program launched in Columbus

A pilot program to help former prisoners transition back into the community was recently launched in Columbus as part of a new state initiative, according to Robert Keller, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.

On Thursday, Keller announced the program to ministers at the Pastors and Faith-based Community Lunch hosted by the Urban League of Greater Columbus, Inc. The event was held at the Columbus Civic Center and drew about 50 ministers.

Keller said the state’s prison population almost doubled to 60,000 people from 1990 to 2011. One in 13 people are now incarcerated in the state, he said, compared to one in 31 nationwide.

“Now, folks that’s scary because that’s us,” said Keller, who once served as District Attorney of Clayton County. “That’s not somebody who lives in a foreign country. These are our cousins, our aunts, our uncles, our brothers, our sisters, mothers and fathers.”

Keller said Deal formed the Office of Transition Support and Reentry to address the problem. He said the agency is responsible for developing a framework to help ex-prisoners successfully integrate back into the community with jobs and sustainable housing. Columbus is one of six cities chosen for the pilot program. The other cities are Albany, Macon, Savannah, Augusta, and Atlanta.

Keller said the program will be coordinated locally by community and housing coordinators hired by the state. A steering committee has been developed and Urban League President and CEO Brooke Burgess is the presiding chair.

He said the state is evaluating inmates while they’re in prison to determine what services they will need upon release, and the information will be provided to coordinators in the different cities.

“We picked the metropolitan areas because that’s where 40 percent of our returning citizens return,” he said. “It’s also the area where we have the highest recidivism rate.”

In addition to a presentation from Keller, the ministers also heard a personal testimony from the Rev. Sandra Anderson, senior pastor of Community Outreach Church of Columbus. Anderson said she grew up in a corrupt environment in Gary, Ind., and began stealing at age 4. In the 1990s, her husband received military orders for Fort Benning, and when the family moved to Columbus she was caught committing credit card theft and forgery.

In 1995, Anderson said, she was arrested and sentenced to prison, but got parole instead. When she returned to the community, she said, church people shunned her.

“It wasn’t no unsaved people who dogged me out,” she told the ministers. “It was the church community, the faith-based community that dogged me out.”

Anderson said she was released in 1996, and within three days fell back into her stealing habit. In 1998, she was arrested again, that time in Harris County. She faced 30 years because she was repeat offender, but she only got three years, she said. In jail, she began reading her Bible. Thirteen months into the sentence, her 10-year-old son died from a heart and asthma attack.

Anderson said when she was released, God helped her get her life together. She went back to school and earned several divinity degrees, including a doctoral degree at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. She is now an advocate for inmates and prison reform, especially in the state of Georgia.

“Anytime I have the opportunity to speak about anything related to a prison, it becomes extremely personal to me,” she said. “You can’t be a community or a nation when most of your citizens are incarcerated or under state supervision.”