Upon release, formerly incarcerated people reenter society burdened with stigma as they seek to begin anew.
Terrica Redfield Ganzy, deputy director
Southern Center for Human Rights
Waleisah Wilson is a passionate advocate for people seeking to start life over as their incarceration comes to an end. It’s her job to make sure her clients have what they need to thrive in society.
“A lot of times, the resources are there, but other barriers are put in place, so you can’t access them. If you have a felony conviction, you can’t get into some places, like some shelters or housing,” Wilson explains. Even if these felonies happened 30 years ago, they are still on the record. “The prison system just throws people out on the streets and expects them to swim upstream. Just getting an identification card, access to a birth certificate or a social security number is difficult. During this pandemic, many government offices are closed.”
Wilson has first-hand knowledge of the process. Although she wasn’t incarcerated a long time, the societal barriers went up as soon as she was released.
“Once I got out, I had another life sentence of unemployment. You are always asked if you have a felony conviction. Even though I had a master’s degree and 15 years of experience, I was still homeless and unemployed,” she said.
Wilson used her frustration to help other decarcerated people find their way. She created a nonprofit agency to work with people who have criminal records. She puzzled out solutions to the barriers they faced. She even canvassed door-to-door to ask business owners and managers if they would hire people with felonies or drug offences.
“When they said no, I tried to convince them of the importance of second chances,” Wilson explained. “About 94% of people in prison will return home. When they do, how do you want them to be in society?”
Wilson now works full-time with the Southern Center for Human Rights as the client services advocate. Her position this year was made possible by a United Methodist Committee on Relief grant that provided the means for the Southern Center for Human Rights to establish a holistic program for reentry. It provides job readiness, workforce development, life skills training and social service referrals for people being released from prison.
“UMCOR made a huge difference,” said SCHR’s deputy director, Terrica Redfield Ganzy. “You helped us make a dream we had hoped for become a reality.”
The next step for justice
The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 1976 by area clergy and activists concerned about the horrendous conditions in Southern prisons and jails and the criminal justice issues arising after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty that year.
Today, the center continues its efforts to repeal the death penalty and focuses on issues of mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty as well. With attorneys on staff, this nonprofit agency intervenes for clients to bring justice to people who have been wrongly convicted, saddled with long sentences for minor offences and forgotten in a system designed to keep people of color out of society and behind bars.
Atteeyah Hollie is SCHR’s senior staff attorney in the Impact Litigation Unit. When asked about the UMCOR grant, she explained that five years ago, the office started a campaign to gain release for people serving lengthy sentences without the possibility of parole.
“One man we helped, and almost all of the clients we help are Black, was sentenced to 20 years to life for a minor drug offence – possession of three grams of cocaine in a 1990 conviction. Three grams of cocaine, with no possibility of parole. Over the last 5 years, we have succeeded in getting 30 released through this effort,” Hollie said.
People coming home after serving 20 years have many needs that must be addressed before they can successfully reintegrate into the community. Their communities have changed, and the world is filled with new technology they don’t know how to use.
“Attorneys and paralegals may be able to get them to the door, but we are not skilled in providing what they need to lead vibrant lives,” Hollie noted. “We needed a way to help them live the lives they had been dreaming of living during the time they were in prison.”
That’s what sparked the idea for a reintegration program as the next step in serving justice. After making connections with UMCOR, the center received a grant of nearly $100,000.
Earlier this year they began a search for a client advocate and Wilson came on board – on the first day Georgia ordered its COVID-19 quarantine.
Building a life with autonomy and independence
“When we applied for this grant, we thought we might get five people out of prison in the first year,” Ganzy said. “We’ve doubled that number in the last three months. For Waleisah to be here, for her to come at this exact time – the pandemic makes everything more difficult, but now our clients have her as their advocate. She automatically knows what we would take weeks to discover. She makes it so much faster for folks to get the resources they need.”
Employment, housing, applying for benefits and food stamps, finding therapists and support groups – Wilson lines it all up.
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“Not being able to do work face-to-face because of COVID-19 is unique,” Wilson admits. “We help our clients navigate resources online. For some, when they went into prison, there were no smartphones.”
Hollie points out that Wilson ensures that her clients grow into their own independence.
“She makes clear, people have to do things on their own. It is not her intention for them to be dependent on her.”
Ganzy agrees. “It’s even better than I could have imagined. I don’t know how to explain how good this is. Our former clients now support one another in ways they were never able to before. They are in support groups – and it means so much to communicate with other folks who have been through it.”
Christie R. House is a consulting writer and editor with Global Ministries.