Society problems

The Outside the Walls program helps former prisoners reconnect with society

Trinese McDowell had paid her debt to society, but she ran into trouble after her release from prison. It’s a story all too familiar to people who’ve been in prison. Too many doors are closed to them, leading to a downward spiral that sends many of them back behind bars.

McDowell had served six years in prison and was trying to turn his life around. She was a member of the First African Baptist Church and attended a meeting where she met Pam Pierson in the fall of 2020. Pierson is a retired University of Alabama law professor and former federal prosecutor who knew already the problems faced by people like McDowell.

What was different about this meeting was that McDowell had an idea, which she shared with Pierson, that would connect people coming out of prison to community resources.

“It’s a struggle that I’ve had myself, coming back into society for a fresh start, and I thought to myself, there’s a solution to this. What if we get together, get them all together, because people need those sources. Maybe we can build trust on both sides, that’s how it happened. I’m just saying it’s a love story of God. Those are the hands and feet of people coming together to be able to help someone else, to love a neighbor and let them be able to start in life and go on,” McDowell said.

September 8, 2022;  Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  at a dinner to help people coming out of prison connect with community resources both spiritual and physical on Thursday, September 8, 2022. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News

Pierson, who organized a coalition of 12 Tuscaloosa churches from black and white communities, forming the organization Outside the Walls, agreed that the solution presented by McDowell was perfect for his organization.

Pierson began making phone calls and got the ball rolling to create a regular meeting where people who have been released from prison can connect with community members and learn about resources available to help them.

Dallas Richey is another person with a story like McDowell’s. He was in prison for selling marijuana and being an accessory to murder and had served five years. Upon his release, he met District Attorney Hays Webb, who invited him to attend a special meeting held at the Highland Church. It was a moment that changed Richey’s life. In this meeting, everyone spoke for himself. A Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy was also at the meeting where Richey shared his story.

“I have to let them know how God changed me,” Richey said.

When he was released from prison, Richey was selling watermelons. In fact, he met and spoke to a man from the Alabama Department of Transportation at his watermelon stand and told the man he needed a job. This man brought Richey a job application. Nine years after being hired at the lowest-paying job, Richey has become ALDOT’s employee of the year.

September 8, 2022;  Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Dallas Richey, right, a man who has served time in prison, talks to people during a dinner at the Shelton State CA Fredd Campus designed to help people coming out of prison connect with community resources both spiritual and physical on Thursday, September 8, 2022. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News

Tripp Powell, who is the chairman of the executive committee of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and who is involved in the alternative sentencing program, knows that Richey has taken the right path in finding a job, but finding a job for people who have a criminal record is not easy.

“It’s really an economic development question that we’re going to have to answer over time, and that’s a good start. This is about public safety (and) labor (development), because ultimately the only way out of this ever-perpetuating cycle is to have a job and to have a light to follow out of this darkness,” Powell said.

In the alternative sentencing program, Powell has seen the same faces over and over again because these people find themselves trapped in a cycle from which there is no easy exit. In the program Outside the Walls, he sees a great opportunity for people to get a fresh start in life.

“Instead of saying, ‘There’s Tim again,’ how about doing something to make sure Tim doesn’t come back? The answer always comes down to getting them a job, getting them accredited, getting them a GED , to get them certified in something. I’m not talking about a (minimum wage job), I’m talking about a job that will support a family.

Richey said: “Our job is not to make it difficult for them to find a job. Let’s not keep their mistake above their heads forever because it’s the door that’s turning. Nobody who’s incarcerated wants to come back. back. Let’s take this. Nobody goes out and says, ‘I’m coming back,’ but the ways of this world suck them in because they shut the doors in their face.”

September 8, 2022;  Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Shelton State leaders President Christ Cox, Adult Education Coordinator Kristen Bobo and Community Relations Dean Joe Eatmon chat with people at a dinner designed to help people getting out of jail to connect with community resources both spiritual and physical on Thursday, September 8.  2022. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News

Shelton State Community College’s Adult Education Program is part of the coalition in partnership with Outside the Walls. Kirsten Bobo, director of adult education, saw the problems on both sides of the prison walls. She worked as a GED teacher at the Tuscaloosa County Jail, she taught at the Tuscaloosa Juvenile Detention Center and the CA Fredd Campus of Shelton State. She has also worked with the Bibb County Correctional System.

“It’s much easier to give up. They know what’s behind the wall. It’s human nature to fall back on what you know. Fear is what you don’t know. is where I think Shelton State can help bring those pieces together from being behind the walls to being outside the walls,” Bobo said.

She sees this program as a way to help people coming out of prison feel less overwhelmed. There are many options, but for a person who doesn’t know which path to take, confusion leads to depression and a desire to give up. Outside the Walls gives real hope to people who want to reconnect with society and avoid future prison sentences.

Pierson said people are referred to the program by judges, as well as people who work in the district attorney’s office, the pardons and parole office, and the alternative sentencing program.

The Outside the Walls program begins with an informal introduction, followed by a sit-down dinner with representatives from the 12 churches, courts, law enforcement and employers. People get to know each other in a non-threatening environment where they can connect on a personal level.

“There is a challenge. The hiring approach needs to be changed. Period. It’s a good first start. You can see it with your eyes, but you have to open your heart a little bit and know that it’s a viable option for hiring,” Powell said.

September 8, 2022;  Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Outside the Walls Coordinator Pam Pierson, right, talks to a man at a dinner designed to help people coming out of prison connect to community resources both spiritual and physical on Thursday, September 8, 2022 Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News

The coalition of churches is at the heart of the program. Three churches provide and serve meals. A meeting on September 8 at the Fredd Campus brought together nearly a hundred people. This was the second Hors les Murs event, the first having taken place last May. For the Reverend Paul Pradat, rector of the Episcopal Church of Christ, this is what Christianity is supposed to look like.

“When people come out of incarceration, we create a set of expectations, but we don’t create a clear path. We want people to find jobs, we want them to be employed and to be good citizens, but I’m sure we’re doing a good job of helping them navigate it. To me, seeing all of these resources in one place is kind of what the kingdom (of God) looks like here “said Pradat.