Thursday, April 18, 2019
By Chris Sokoloski for the Coastal Observer
Transitioning from prison back into society isn’t always an easy task, but the county is home to a program to help with it.
The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office re-entry program started 12 years ago and none of the more than 300 men who have completed it have returned to prison.
Inmates from anywhere in South Carolina can request a transfer to Georgetown County to take part in the program. They must have at least one year left on their sentence, although the programs take between 2,000 and 8,000 hours to complete.
Debbie Barr, director of the program, said participants have been serving sentences that range from eight to 25 years.
Anthony Lewis finished the program in 2013. He returned to his native Summerville and founded Dream Electric in 2018, which now employs eight people.
“I always told myself it would be a dream come true to own my own company,” Lewis said.
He said the reentry program was a blessing. “Before I came here I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out,” Lewis said. “Probably the same I was doing to get in here.” “You couldn’t ask for a better, upstanding citizen than [Anthony],” Barr said. “These guys change so many other lives, their friends, their spouses, their family.”
Lewis returns to the area for work. He and his crew have been helping refurbish the new Goodwill Store in Pawleys Island next to Habaneros.
Barr said HVAC is the most popular of the programs. There is also auto body repair, carpentry, equipment operation, thermal insulation, landscaping, barbering, welding, plumbing, roofing and painting.
The program also teaches life skills, such as budgeting money, writing resumes, how to interact with people, including during job interviews, and making amends with family and friends. “Getting out of here you’re not going to have a lot,” Lewis said. “If you can’t keep up with everything you might backtrack and do crazy stuff,”
The program is registered with the National Apprenticeship Program through the Department of Labor and the Apprenticeship Carolina SC Technical College System. Participants complete apprenticeships with employees in the county Public Services department. They receive a small stipend while getting a chance to fulfill most of the requirements for a journeyman certification.
Some of the inmates are hired for jobs before they get out.
“I take them in their jail clothes… for the job interview and people are not prepared,” Barr said. “They’re coming in in these striped pants. … [But] that breaks the ice and we start giggling and laughing and they get the job when they walk out of there. They forget about the clothes, about the jail. They’re looking at their skills and they’re so ready.”
The program is supported by Amazing Journey, a nonprofit fundraising group.
County Council Chairman John Thomas has been a member of group’s board for about three years.
“It’s been very interesting and kind of rewarding,” Thomas said. “I’ve never had anything to do with jails, and people that were in jails. I’ve learned a lot.”
Thomas would like to see the program do more monetarily to help graduates re-acclimate to society, such as paying for new driver’s licenses and any fines that might have built up while the inmate was in prison.
“I think that’s something we can help them with,” he said. “Just to see folks like this start again and be successful is really good.”
Barr said she is looking into the possibility of selling some of the woodworking items that program participants make and putting the proceeds in a fund for post-graduate expenses.
Annette Perreault, the former executive director for Habitat for Humanity Georgetown County, is also on the Amazing Journey board.
“It’s such a privilege to be associated with an incredible program,” Perrault said.
She said when she first joined she had preconceived notions of what prison inmates are like. “They blew me out of the water,” she said. “They were so nice and so polite.”
She still sees some of the graduates working around the county.
Once the inmates are released Barr and her volunteers remain available for counseling and help for one year.
The re-entry program is now housed in a refurbished hangar on the grounds of the county detention center on Highway 51. The facility has all the equipment students need to train, televisions to watch training videos and a classroom with laptops.
One small room is set up as a barber shop and can be used by any county employee who needs a haircut.
“We’ve come a long way,” Barr said. “We’re proud of this building.”
Not everybody who’s accepted into the program finishes it. Some can’t abide by the rules.
“If you want to be here it’s a privilege,” Barr said. “I throw [some] out because there’s somebody that needs it really badly.”
To learn more, please visit:
The Floyd Law Firm’s Attorney, Collin R. Jewell is President of the Board of Directors for Amazing Journey, Inc..