Blassingame helps men out of prison find their way - Alton Telegraph

Blassingame helps men out of prison find their way - Alton Telegraph


Blassingame helps men out of prison find their way - Alton Telegraph

Posted: 04 Apr 2021 09:14 PM PDT

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Joey Goodrich is halfway through the retraining and reentry program, and the Boston native already is thinking about staying here after he finishes later this year.

He came to Soteria Community Development Corp. with some vocational experience as a plasterer. Now he's reclaiming wood from construction sites and transforming it into furniture. He's learning to use his hands in new ways, along with other valuable skills: how to run a business, understand basic finance, manage government bureaucracy, collaborate with others.

About three years ago, Goodrich lost everything: his family, his job, his autonomy. He fell in with the wrong people, he said. He agreed to cash a forged check for somebody and split the proceeds. He got caught and sentenced to prison, where he spent 2½ years coping with his claustrophobia.

"It made me appreciate things so much more," he said.

He decided to reach out for help. He wrote letters of inquiry to 13 organizations, but only one responded: Soteria.

The first day out of prison, Goodrich was handed a care package filled with food, clothes and boots. Then he moved into Soteria's transitional housing. Then he began his rehabilitation. Here was a place he could feel safe and whole, a place of solidarity and uplift, of faith and hope.

"You can feel it," he said. "It's not fake."

Soteria was founded in 1999 on little more than a prayer. Jerry Blassingame knew he wanted to start a ministry that helped the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet, though he had no money, no property and no experience in the nonprofit world.

What he had was a criminal record and a strong faith.

Today, Soteria boasts a 16-bed transitional facility, with a new eight-unit project in the works, and 14 low-income rentals. The carpentry shop is getting HVAC and insulation installed. The ministry includes mentoring, financial literacy training, money management assistance, resume preparation, mental health referrals and hands-on labor opportunities.

Participants earn a living wage, much of which they save while staying in Soteria's provided housing.

After a while, the men can move into the low-cost rentals. This generates earned income for the organization. More comes from the sale of the handmade furniture and from Blassingame's consulting. Grants and donations round out the annual budget.

NO PATH

South Carolina prisons contain around 15,000 people, according to the Department of Corrections. All but 1,000 are men. More than 60 percent are Black. It costs taxpayers $24,500 a year per inmate, based on state funds spent.

The prison population increased each year until 2001, with the biggest jumps of more than 30 percent in the mid-1970s. Since 2005, the total prison population has seen modest annual declines.

The Corrections Department's Division of Programs, Reentry and Rehabilitative Services helps inmates learn new job skills, obtain their GED, earn vocational certificates, receive substance abuse treatment, learn about how crimes affect victims and help dissuade young people from a life of crime.

But Blassingame said it's hardly enough. Men and women leaving prison receive an ID card issued by Corrections, not a regular South Carolina ID. That makes it difficult for people with a criminal record to open a bank account, rebuild credit, get a driver's license, find employment and secure housing, he said.

And without a clear path to recovery, too often they end up back in the hole.

There are many collateral consequences of incarceration, some official and legal, others merely prejudicial, Blassingame said. Depending in part on the kind of felony conviction, these consequences can include fines and fees, loss of SNAP benefits, prohibitions regarding housing and employment, restrictions imposed on securing or maintaining various occupational licenses, voting limitations, child custody prohibitions, disqualifications on gun possession and jury duty and travel bans.

Allie Menegakis, founder and director of SC4CJR and a criminal defense attorney with Adams & Bischoff, said the best solution is to incarcerate fewer people in the first place, especially since studies show that imprisonment is not effective in curbing crime.

"If we reduce the amount of people in prison, our state would be able to fund reentry, probably for everyone," she said.

U.S. prisons still include large numbers of nonviolent criminals, some serving years for drug possession and small-scale dealing. Only a small percentage of the incarcerated gain access to reentry programs, and those who do often are selected on the basis of how likely they are to succeed, Menegakis said.

Nonprofits such as Root and Rebound and Turning Leaf Project do great work but can find it difficult to scale up to meet the need, she said.

"If we're going to be jailing people for the foreseeable future, then we also need to be investing in what happens to them while they're in prison, and what happens when they reenter society," she said.

TWO LIVES

One day at home, when he was 5 years old, Blassingame was warned by his mother's boyfriend, "You better leave before you see something you don't want to see." Then the man shot Blassingame's mother to death in the next room. His grandfather was shot when he tried to intervene. He died two years later of complications. For the rest of his childhood, Blassingame and his five siblings lived with their grandmother, who struggled with alcoholism.

He found refuge at a mostly White school across town, where he thrived. But he was leading two distinct lives, one of academic promise, the other of urban blight and danger, he said.

Blassingame was determined to become an architect, and he did so well in school he earned a full college scholarship.

"Back in the neighborhood I saw bling," he said. He started as a lookout for a drug dealer, making $100 a day. He graduated to driver status, making $200 a day. Then, when the dealer he'd been working for got hooked on crack, Blassingame was handed 9 ounces of cocaine and told by the boss, "You're the man now."

He didn't disappoint.

"I came home from school one day and a guy dropped a bag of money on me," he recalled. "It was $20,000 cash money. That was my profit that I made in one day from selling crack. An architect could never make this much money. So I dropped out of school and became a drug dealer."

The lifestyle granted him the fame and attention he'd been craving. After about a decade of drugs and fast wealth, it all came crumbling down.

Blassingame was arrested, sentenced to 15 years, which was suspended to nine months and five years probation. He served four months, lost his Pell grant and couldn't find a regular job when he was out.

"So guess what I did?"

Six months later, in November 1995, he was arrested again, charged with 11 counts, then struck a plea bargain in exchange for dismissal of a violent charge. He was sentenced to 20 years but soon became eligible for parole. He was in prison for 3½ years.

His sister had become a Christian after overcoming her own struggles and she pestered Blassingame about the Bible. Soon, he was hooked.

He kept a journal and dreamed about starting his own nonprofit ministry. He also corresponded with members of Clemson United Methodist Church, a predominantly White congregation that took a genuine interest in Blassingame and his goals, providing essential support.

After 22 years, Soteria is setting an example for others. Blassingame has worked with people in other states and abroad to set up similar ministries. The formerly incarcerated should have opportunities to influence policy and contribute ideas to reform-minded civic leaders and agencies, he said. After all, those who have served time know best how the system works — and fails to work.

The devotion is absolute. Blassingame has found his calling.

"This is me," he said. "Soteria is who I am."

ON FAITH

Wallace Justice graduated from the program in 2017, and stayed on. Today he is shop manager, mentoring others, and he runs his own home remodeling business. He attributes the success of Soteria to "God and love," and to Blassingame's extraordinary efforts.

"I see how hard Jerry works to keep this place going," Justice said.

Bob Norwood is among the older veterans of the program. He came in November 2019, "totally on faith," he said. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

But he knew he had to start over from scratch. He had enjoyed a long career as a manager in the airline industry before an auto accident rattled his brain and sent him into a depression. Living in the Myrtle Beach area, he was charged with armed robbery and spent 8½ years in prison, he said. He, too, lost everything. Now he's Soteria's director of operations.

Jonathan Thompson also graduated from the program but chose to stick around to help others. He came to South Carolina from California, got in trouble in Georgetown and woke up one day in the county jail after a belligerent encounter with a sheriff's deputy that Thompson said he can't remember.

He wasn't in jail long, though, and an uncle who knew of Soteria told his nephew about it. Thompson jumped at the opportunity to reclaim his life and his relationships with family, he said. He'd had enough with drugs and destitution.

"I knew I wanted to work here right away," he said. "I learned life skills I never learned growing up."

And now he can think about the future.

"The cool thing is when you're done with the program you know what you're doing and know where to go," he said.

Goodrich still is amazed at Blassingame's generosity and the ministry's impacts.

"Where else can you go to save money and work on you?" he wondered aloud.

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