Local churches partnering with inmates to help them transition back in to society

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- More than 90 percent of offenders in prison will eventually be back in our communities, according to Tennessee Department of Correction.

The “Take One” program aims to help them make a successful transition back in to society. TDOC pairs offenders nearing the end of their sentence with mentors from churches and nonprofit organizations.

The offenders apply for the program. The hope is that each church would “Take One” offender to mentor. TDOC said there’s no commitment or contract on either side, just the start of a relationship.

We talked with one man participating in the program. Lester Julian just finished the final day of his prison sentence. He served 11 years for voluntary manslaughter.

He is now back home with his parents while he’s trying to get back on his feet.

“It’s really emotional….Simply because I put my family through so much. I killed somebody, I took a life, it was hard to deal with,” Julian said.

Now he’s back in a world he hasn’t seen in a decade.

“It’s a culture shock,” Julian said.

A few months before his release, he applied for the Take One program.

“My main objective was to have somebody that could mentor me in a way that would hold me accountable,” Julian said.

Maurice Widener is the chaplain at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City.  Widener helps partner inmates that plan to come back to Northeast Tennessee with local churches and nonprofits. He connected Julian with mentors at Hopwood Memorial Christian Church.

“Being an addict I know that I have to change the people that I’m around and this program has helped me to do that instead of calling up old friends, I call my new friends,” Julian said.

He said like many of his fellow inmates, he left prison with nothing to his name and few connections left to the outside world.

“It’s a totally different world on the inside,” Julian said. “Everything is so structured and if you go from all structure to no structure you’re failing rate is going to go up significantly.”

“There’s a great gap there and if that gap is not filled and resources made available that brings about that chance of recidivism,” Widener said.

The volunteer mentors also connect the former inmates with resources.

“To help them make connections points to employment, to housing, to education, to health needs,” Steve Baldwin said. Baldwin is a volunteer with Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church’s newly formed Take One team.

According to TDOC, there are 450 people in this program throughout the state right now. But they are still trying to gain some traction here in our region and get churches to get involved. Specifically they need women to step up to work with other women getting out of jail. TDOC said seven churches in the Tri-Cities have signed up to Take One.

“I realized they’re just people like all of us and there’s a day that they’re going to get out and a day that they need support so we then signed up for the Take One program,” George Fulwider said. Wider is a volunteer with Hopwood Memorial Christian Church’s Take One team.

The volunteer mentors are matched with an inmate a few months before they are set to be released. Then the mentors go in to the prison, meet with them, and form a relationship before they are released.

Julian’s mentors are now walking with him as he navigates his new world.

“The people from the church that I’ve met are just so caring so loving and they give it to you straight,” Julian said. “This is not a contract, this is a relationship, this is something that you build upon and that’s exactly were doing.”

He said without this program, “I would probably get frustrated and go back to using opiates or smoking pot or something of that nature just to get away you know. I had a tendency of before just to give up and just go back into that lifestyle,” Julian said.

Julian said next week he starts online classes. He is hoping to get his bachelor’s in psychology to help others who deal with addiction.

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