Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a series of articles exploring the impact of Project Safe Neighborhoods.
FOREST PARK — Dr. Danielle Sweat-Whylly is a community outreach specialist for the U.S. Attorney General of the Northern District of Georgia’s office. She is heavily involved in Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal crime-fighting initiative now targeting parts of Clayton County. And she is the daughter of a man who was incarcerated.
On Thursday evenings, a non-profit group called the Offenders Alumni Association (OAA) meets at Seed Planters Community Church. Similar groups exist in Fulton County and around the country. This peer support forum, which calls itself “a collaborative effort of those that believe or have been given a Second Chance,” helps people transitioning from prison back into the community “with stuff regular people just won’t understand.”
Deborah Daniels, who co-founded the program along with former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Drayton Nabers Jr. in 2014, introduced herself as “what society would call a ‘repeat offender’ — I didn’t go to jail one time, I went three times. Been out 21 years.”
Adjusting to life on the outside can be tricky. Daniels joked about her anxiety at learning how to use a Blackberry. Her good news was the imminent closing date on her new home. More serious are the strained family relationships, some from the prison experience itself, others from interpersonal issues that contribute to family dysfunction.
At a recent meeting, the topic was “unconditional love.” Participants shared the difficulties they face with mending family relationships after incarceration and provide support for each other.
Sweat-Whylly, who works with this group, has a personal stake in its members’ success. “My dad was incarcerated for eight years when I was younger, and he’s been out 23 years.”
“I didn’t realize I still had something against him for going to prison until I went to counseling, and I realized I had a detachment issue,” Sweat-Whylly explained. “Now I know that detachment is a positive thing and a virtue, but there’s also the negative detachment where you can’t let bad stuff go.”
Or, as a counselor herself, “I’m boo-hoo crying about somebody else’s issue like it’s my issue, some of that is not healthy. Or when a kid’s about to graduate from the program, they’ve been there nine months, threw chairs at me, all kind of stuff, but I’m scared for them to go live their life because I’m scared they’re gonna relapse.”
Some of that, she said, had to do with her dad going to prison and her mom leaving her with her grandmother, later seeing college classmates getting cards and packages from their parents that she never conceived of getting.
“My parents never told me they loved me, ever,” she said. “And apparently I needed that.”
Drexel Barry was incarcerated 14 1/2 years. “I’ve been out one year,” he said. The others cheered and clapped.
“Honestly, you know what keeps going through my head?” Art Powell, another group member, said softly. “Eighty-two percent go back within three years and 44 [percent] go back within one year. And every time I talk to somebody, that’s my thing. We’ve got to change that.”
Powell, who was incarcerated 11 1/2 years, has been out for 13 years. “I had three people approach me on my way here about OAA.” His T-shirt read Former Offenders Doing Life Together. “I said, ‘We’re over here in Forest Park, y’all come.” One was an electrician; another does lawn care. “It’s hard, a lot of people don’t understand where we’ve been when we get out. So this is a magnet.”
Life after prison is not as simple as getting a job and staying out of trouble. “Collateral consequences” are hundreds, even thousands, of legal pitfalls that ex-offenders face as they try to return to society. In Georgia alone, convicts face 873 legal barriers after prison, from ineligibility for small business loans to bans on working in many professions.
These consequences vary by state, complicating matters for people like Daniels, who was convicted in Alabama, yet lives in Georgia and travels around the country working with OAA. An expungement there costs more than $1,000. (Her case was expunged when the judicial system realized she was OAA’s widely-recognized co-founder.) By contrast, Clayton County held a Restorative Justice Summit last month, which included free legal advice and job-hunting assistance.
Even with that kind of growing support from the justice system, ex-offenders must deal with ever-present family issues.
“How’s the relationship going with Cookie now?” Daniels asked Barry.
“Oh, we good. We talk a lot now,” Barry said. “As long as I’m doing the things that she expected of me, and the things that I said I was going to do while I was incarcerated, she don’t have a problem. It’s just when I veer from that, she get mad quick. Her tolerance is—”
“She got that Arthur tolerance!” Daniels quipped, drawing laughter.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love my family to death,” Powell said. “But I also know it’s not, the place we’re in is not healthy for me. So I have to love them from a distance.”
At 49 going on 50, Powell says he has his hands full with his 10-month-old and 4-year-old sons. He’s done a lot of crying and he spends the holidays with his pastor “because he understands my situation.”
The only relatives who call are Powell’s baby sister and a cousin. “Everybody else, I’m done wrecking my brain trying to figure out what the disconnect is. I’ve got the same number I’ve had since I’ve been out of prison. Never changed. Got the same number for 13 years. I’m gonna leave it at that.”
To learn more about Offender Alumni Association (OAA), visit http://offenderalumniassociation.org
Explore collateral consequences in Georgia and across the United States at https://niccc.csgjusticecenter.org/map/
Find out more about the U.S. Attorney’s Community Outreach programs at https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga/community-outreach
To donate business suits to Project Safe Neighborhoods for offenders reentering the work force, contact Dr. Danielle Sweat-Whylly at (404) 581-4646 or Danielle.Whylly@usdoj.gov