Help From Where You Least Expect It

Help From Where You Least Expect It

Help From Where You Least Expect It

depressed man

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t find a better job; I might have to go back [to prison].”

Two months out of prison, Ray (name changed for anonymity) was explaining to me that he had reached the end of his rope. He had been struggling to find work that paid enough so that he could simply afford the basics. His part-time, minimum-wage job, just wasn’t cutting it. But, at least it was something.

Ray had the added complication of having to take custody of his son shortly after being released, meaning another mouth to feed when he could barely feed himself.

During his most desperate days after leaving prison, Ray said he was blessed to have the help of local church ministries who provided temporary housing for him and his son at a local extended stay hotel. He called GCO because that assistance was running out. He needed more help so he could remain at the extended stay but, more than that, Ray knew he had to solve the job problem to have any hope of getting off the hamster wheel he was on.

“I’m “clean” and have no intention of going back to that life.”

With a record that included drug and property crimes, Ray worried he might not have a shot at a better job. “But I’m willing to do any job that pays enough,” he assured me.

With those details in hand, our team started looking for the resources Ray needed and found some great opportunities for him and his son. There was a local church ministry offering help with additional days in the extended stay motel, there was the local restaurant eager to interview Ray for a better-paying job.

In the end, help came from a place Ray least expected it: the extended stay motel owner himself.

After hearing Ray’s story and observing him on the motel property, he offered Ray a job as a maintenance technician, a position that also included room and board on the motel property – an answer to Ray’s prayer for better pay and housing stability for him and his son.



The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Like Ray, you might be surprised the motel owner stepped in to help the way he did, but you shouldn’t be. Many times, our local business owners bridge the gap for those in need in big and small ways – from helping support the nonprofits that serve emergency needs to, like the motel owner did for Ray, helping directly.

Too often, it’s business owners who get the negative press and little credit for the good they do. In reality, as Ray’s story reminds us, they are a huge part of the solution to poverty – both in the jobs they provide through their risk-taking and in their philanthropy made possible through the profits they generate.

Is this the end of Ray’s story? I don’t think so. Ray seems to have a drive that’s going to keep him reaching for better opportunities and, of course, if we can help him, we’ll be here to do that.

The point is that Ray’s story isn’t unique. For those reaching out and seeking help – for housing, for work, for food – there are often caring community members willing to help.

And sometimes that help comes from the place you least expect it.

If you or someone you know is struggling to find employment in Gwinnett or is looking for help to meet their basic needs, please visit to find resources or to be connected to one of our “guaranteed-interview” employment partners.


AEI Event: Improving Prisoner Reentry and Reducing Recidivism

Man in handcuffs

Watch a recording of the event here.

Georgia Center for Opportunity was privileged to partner with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in co-hosting an event on the issue of prisoner reentry at AEI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 28th.

The event featured two panels: The first consisting of non-profits leaders who have faced challenges and successes in helping former prisoners successfully reintegrate into society, and the second featuring government leaders who have similarly faced challenges and successes in working to reform the criminal justice system itself.

GCO’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Eric Cochling, moderated the first panel that featured four non-profit leaders, including Craig DeRoche of Justice Fellowship, Harriet McDonald of The Doe Fund, Bryan Kelley of Prison Entrepreneurship Program, and Harold Dean Trulear of Healing Communities. The panelists discussed such themes as the importance for Americans to view prisoners and people with a criminal record as a valuable asset to society, the importance of work and its role in promoting human dignity and successful reintegration, the necessity for returning citizens to experience a change in attitudes and values to avoid recidivating, and the role of the community in embracing returning citizens and “walking with” them in their journey.

The second panel was moderated by Robert Doar, Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI, and featured three government leaders: Georgia’s own Jay Neal, former state representative and current executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry, Gary Mohr, commissioner of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Chauncey Parker, special policy advisor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. This panel highlighted specific approaches that states have taken to improve prisoner reentry as a means of promoting public safety, including instilling the mindset that reentry begins at the point of arrest, basing decisions on data instead of knee-jerk reactions, facilitating better connections between family members and incarcerated loved ones, and instilling the importance of viewing offenders as human beings among the criminal justice workforce.

Watch the event and gain a better understanding of how effective collaboration between families, faith communities, service providers, and the government, as well as a changed perception of the ones they are serving, is essential for promoting successful reintegration among returning citizens.


The Consequences of Debt for Returning Citizens

Behind chain-linked fence

This is the third entry in a series of posts highlighting GCO’s report, A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates. The first entry provided an overview of the report and the second entry laid out causes of debt for people reentering society from prison.

An inordinate amount of debt and unrealistic terms of repayment create numerous barriers for returning citizens, including disproportionate financial pressure, the threat of revocation and re-incarceration, and various penalties for non-compliance.

Mounting Financial Pressure

Having to immediately begin paying financial obligations upon release combined with carrying thousands of dollars in debt puts tremendous financial pressure on returning citizens. Many leave prison with great anxiety wondering where they will live and work, and some possess only what they were given upon release: $25, a change of civilian clothes, and a bus ticket to their release destination.[i] A great number of returning citizens do not have a decent-paying job prior to prison,[1],[ii] and their prospect of finding one after release is slim.[iii] One study reveals that three-fourths of people released from prison owing child support, restitution, and supervision fees reported having difficulty paying off these debts.[iv] They may be willing to make these payments but simply do not have the means to do so right away.

Threat of Revocation or Arrest

The payment of debts and obligations is a condition of probation and parole in Georgia;[v] therefore, a violation of these conditions by failing to pay can result in a revocation hearing.[vi] While it is not common practice for the Parole Board to revoke a parolee solely for his or her failure to pay financial obligations,[vii] in some jurisdictions revocation hearings are regularly sought for those on probation.[viii] One public defender in Georgia reports that probationers who cannot pay criminal justice debt are often arrested for failing to report to officers who are involved in collection.[ix] This may not result in re-incarceration, but it may cause a person to miss work and subsequently lose his or her job. However, those who fail to appear at a payment hearing can have a warrant issued for their arrest.[x] Further, Georgia law requires a person to remain under probation supervision until all outstanding obligations are paid, or until the termination of the sentence, depending on whichever comes first.[xi]

Penalties for Non-Compliance

For those who do not pay court-ordered financial obligations and debt, Georgia law allows for garnishment, levy, foreclosure, and all other actions provided for the collection of fines, costs, and restitution.[xii] This can be detrimental for a returning citizen who is struggling to make ends meet. Unpaid debt also may lead to the suspension of one’s driver’s license, making transportation to and from work very challenging, since Georgia law allows for the suspension of a driver’s license for any person who has accumulated child support arrears equivalent to or greater than two months’ worth of payments.[2],[xiii] This barrier can impede a person’s ability to find work and earn income, leading to more and more debt accumulating. In addition, criminal justice debt can be converted into a civil judgment which allows credit reporting agencies access to the information. This in turn damages – or further damages – a returning citizen’s credit, making it more difficult to obtain employment and housing.[xiv]

A combination of these barriers may lead a returning citizen to become desperate and resort to engaging in the underground economy as a means of supporting himself or herself, or paying his or her debts.[xv] As a result, the returning citizen may face re-incarceration for committing new offenses,[xvi] leading to more debt accumulation and increased costs to taxpayers.



[1] Fifty-nine percent of people detained in jails across the nation in 2002 reported monthly incomes of less than $1,000 prior to arrest.

[2] Suspending and reinstating driver’s licenses is an administrative process that is handled by the DCSS.



Some of the citations listed below are abbreviated. To view the full citation, see the “Notes” section in our report, A High Price to Pay.

[i] Laurie Linke and Peggy Ritchie, Releasing Inmates from Prison: Profiles of State Practices, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, September 2004, 25,,76 (tution Procedures,”Library/ 021386.pdf.

[ii] Doris J. James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 201932, July 2004, revised October 12, 2004, 9,

[iii] Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie, “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 623 (2009): 195-213, National Institutes of Health Public Access, Author Manuscript, available in PMC February 27, 2013, 4,

[iv] Rachel L. McLean and Michael D. Thompson, Repaying Debts, 8; Nancy G. La Vigne, Christy Visher, and Jennifer Castro, Chicago Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home, Urban Institute, December 2004, 10,

[v] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 21, endnote 118; Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Parole Conditions,” accessed July 24, 2014,

[vi] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 25.

[vii] Robert Keller, Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support, and Reentry, email message to author, April 1, 2014.

[viii] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 21, endnote 119.

[ix] Ibid., endnote 145; See Telephone Interview with Nick White, Defender, Houston County Pub. Defender Office, Nov. 6, 2009.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] O.C.G.A. § 17-10-1(a)(2): “Probation supervision shall terminate in all cases no later than two years from the commencement of probation supervision unless specially extended or reinstated by the sentencing court upon notice and hearing and for good cause shown; provided, however, in those cases involving the collection of fines, restitution, or other funds, the period of supervision shall remain in effect for so long as any such obligation is outstanding, or until termination of the sentence, whichever first occurs.”

[xii] Ibid., endnote 196. See O.C.G.A § 17-10-20(c): “Fines and restitution can be collected through levy, foreclosure, garnishment, and all other actions provided for the enforcement of judgments in Georgia”; See O.C.G.A.§ 42-8-34.2(a) “authorizing the collection of ‘arrearage . . . through issuance of a writ of fiera facias’ from defendants for whom payment of fines, costs, and restitution is a condition of probation. However, no one the Brennan Center interviewed knew of wage garnishment or liens being used in practice.”

[xiii] O.C.G.A. § 19-6-28.1(b); Tina Brooks, Parental Accountability Court Coordinator for the Flint Judicial Circuit, email message to the author, July 31, 2014.

[xiv] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 27; See O.C.G.A. § 17-10-20(a): “In any case in which a fine or restitution is imposed as part of the sentence, such fine and restitution shall constitute a judgment against the defendant”; Jonathan D. Glater, “Another Hurdle for the Jobless: Credit Inquiries,” New York Times, August 6, 2009, accessed April 10, 2014, pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[xv] Kirsten D. Levingston and Vicki Turetsky, “Debtors’ Prison – Prisoners’ Accumulation of Debt as a Barrier to Reentry,” Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy 41 (2007): 188, 0394.pdf.

[xvi] Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, and Rebekah Diller, Criminal Justice Debt, 24.


New Report: Increasing Employment Opportunities for Ex-Offenders

This week, Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) published its first report on ways to improve reentry for ex-offenders in the state. The report focuses on increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders and offers six recommendations for the State of Georgia to consider implementing. The report is a product of GCO’s Prisoner Reentry Working Group that has been working to develop solutions for curbing recidivism and improving offenders’ transition to communities throughout Georgia.

The first report focuses on employment because of the critical role it plays in an offenders’ success outside of prison.

Read the full report: Increasing Employment Opportunities for Ex-Offenders


Image credit: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics





Prison Implements Faith and Character-Based Initiative

Inmates of any faith are encouraged to apply to the first “Faith and Character-Based” prison in Georgia, at Walker State Prison, located in the northwest corner of the state.  The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is seeking to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism through this newly established program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity, and faith.


Inmates at Walker State Prison performing

Inmates at Walker State Prison performing


An important part of GCO’s research within its Prisoner Reentry Initiative involves visiting correctional facilities throughout the state to view firsthand what programs and services GDC offers to prepare offenders to transition back into society. This varies greatly by the quality of education, training, and treatment they receive during their incarceration. Some facilities are better than others, and this prison impressed us as having great potential for success.

Changed Expectations:  A Prison of Hope

Pulling up to Walker State Prison, it appeared that the prison was just like any other from the outside: razor-wire fence, guard tower, patrol car, lock-down facilities, and an overall feeling of intimidation. However, inside the prison, the atmosphere was quite different from what I expected. We were greeted by respectful inmates with head nods and hand-shakes, who appeared somewhat happy to see visitors. From observing a group of men in a classroom taking guitar lessons to seeing a large mural in the cafeteria depicting a scene from the Garden of Eden, an air of hope seemed to permeate the otherwise grim state facility.

What the GDC started in recent years with a dozen or so faith and character-based dorms throughout the state has evolved into this new two-year initiative being tested in Georgia. The success of these initial dorms paved the way for expanding the program into a prison-wide capacity at Walker in August 2011.  This idea was first tested by Lawtey Correctional Institution in Starke, Florida, whose faith and character-based program has shown to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism since 2003.

Once inmates complete the two-year program, they will either transition into society (via parole, probation, or maxing-out) or transfer to another prison to finish their sentence. Participation in the faith-based component of the program is optional to inmates, but it can be readily accessed through taking various elective classes that are offered. Further, volunteers from the community come into the prison to mentor and help inmates grow in their respective faiths.

Culture of Reform = Unlocked Lockers

At the core of the program is the idea that inmates should be men of character. This is not a policy that is forced from the top-down; rather, it is a goal that each inmate internalizes personally.The pilot group of men adopted articles that govern the way they interact with each other and painted them on the cafeteria wall to be on display for all to see. They even decided to keep all of the lockers in their living quarters unlocked as a reminder to be men of integrity. This powerful symbol – exemplified in the unlocked locker – shows the extent to which the inmates strive to create a culture of reform that is distinct from other prisons.

The staff and inmates at Walker State Prison are cultivating something that is indeed unique among Georgia prisons, as well as in the country at large.

The chaplain shared with us that sometimes men come into his office crying because they feel a sense of release from the oppression that marks the prisons from where they came.

It often takes time for inmates who recently transfer into Walker to adjust to the new prison culture. However, once this starts to happen, the shell around their heart begins to crack, and for the first time in years an inmate may be seen with a smile on his face, finding a ray of hope during this dark time in his life.

Educational Focus

During our visit, I had the opportunity to attend one of the elective classes offered at the prison, taught by volunteer Bruce King.  He provides valuable assessments to measure inmates’ vocational competencies and gifts, where they discover the type of jobs for which they are a good fit.  They also learn how to reframe their story in a positive light and explain to employers why they are the best candidates for a particular job. This seminar gives inmates priceless tools to overcome formidable barriers to employment (such as getting hired with a criminal record), as well as the confidence to know what they are naturally good at doing.

Much more than seminars are offered.  In fact, the entire prison has an educational focus. The inmates spend their day taking both general education and elective classes. The general education classes have proven to be very successful in enabling inmates to acquire a GED certification. Elective classes are more faith-focused, allowing inmates to choose classes based on their respective faiths. Currently Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Wiccan faiths are represented.

The electives are facilitated entirely by inmates and volunteers, as the state does not provide funding or staff to run the faith and character-based program. Two electives at the prison, Greek and Hebrew classes, are taught by seminary-trained inmates from Phillips State Prison (this prison offers courses from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). This model of inmate-facilitation provides a great opportunity for inmates to assume leadership roles, to grow in confidence, to hone their professional skills, and to positively impact their fellow inmates.

Beautiful Trash and Second Chances

The counselor at the prison introduced us to several inmates throughout our tour, and one of these men supervised the art program. We had the privilege of seeing pictures of some of the masterpieces this group produced. The majority of their paintings depicted scenes from the Bible, such as Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Daniel in the lion’s den.  They paint the murals on bed sheets and donate them to churches, foster homes, vacation Bible schools, etc. The group also uses recycled cardboard to build creative works of art, including a toy castle, motorcycle, model plane, and a life-sized grandfather clock with coke insignia all over it (this piece looked so good that it’s now sitting in the Coca-Cola Museum).

The supervisor of this group of artists told us that the message they want to convey through their artwork is that God takes what the world deems as trash and turns it into something beautiful.

It is this same message of redemption that they hope to communicate with their lives.

On a larger scale, at Walker inmates are beginning to see what is possible as they develop a new way of thinking and believing, recovering what has been marred from years of destructive thought patterns. They are seeing their worth as human beings who have been given unique gifts and abilities, and recognizing fresh opportunities where they can serve other people.

For offenders who desire a second chance at life, Walker State Prison is a good place to begin this journey.