After years behind bars, many newly released prisoners in South Carolina have only a bus ticket, a prison ID and state-issued clothes. With nowhere to live and little idea how to find work, many end up back in prison.
Some, however, are now in the Alston Wilkes Society's Inside Out program, learning to live successfully outside prison bars.
The program, paid for with $300,000 from the federal Second Chance Act, matches community volunteers with inmates from Midlands¬- and Greenville-area prisons. Volunteers serve as life coaches, working one-on-one with prisoners to set individual goals three months before release and then at least three months afterward to ensure these goals are met.
The society also helps provide food, shelter, transportation and clothing.
"If you have no support or nobody to direct you, you're given a bus ticket and you get off at the bus station, standing there on the side of the road with not a dime," says Alston Wilkes spokeswoman Erin Roberts. "That's why a lot of them revert to old habits. But we help with that."
About 12,700 inmates left S.C. prisons last year. But an estimated 34 percent will be back within three years, according to a 2007 Corrections Department report, the last available.
It costs about $40 a day to house an inmate in a prison system under scrutiny by state legislators because of continued deficits, including $7.5 million last year. But if Inside Out is successful, it will help keep some of those inmates from returning and save money, former Corrections Director Jon Ozmint said.
And reducing the number of inmates who return to prison is one of the main goals, department spokesman John Barkley said.
"It's always much better for an inmate to leave the Department of Corrections and become a taxpayer instead of a tax burden," he said.
Roberts, a former offender herself, served 22 months at the Richland County jail and in state prison at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution on credit card fraud after violating probation on check fraud.
"I not only want to help people, I know these people," Roberts says. "I know the environment they are living in and what they go through day in and day out, and what it means to come out and have a support system and the difference that can make in someone's life."
Roberts learned about the Alston Wilkes Society from Barbara Rippy, a community service coordinator, who provided her with counseling before Inside Out existed.
Inside Out selects participants based on Corrections Department referrals. The department staff chooses inmates they think could truly benefit from the program's help.
"We can't offer it to every inmate, so we want the right inmates; we want them to succeed and take full advantage of the program," Barkley said.
Roberts said it's also important to have reliable volunteers. Unlike other programs, inmates continue working with the same volunteer. Many of the prisoners in the program have no support system, so it's crucial the mentors are committed.
"The best thing a mentor can give is time and acceptance," says Roberts. "It means the world."
But the program's success will rely heavily on the number of people who actually volunteer.
"Depending on volunteers makes it more challenging, but it's a step up," Ozmint said. "I'm optimistic that it can be successful."