*For Immediate Release
Mississippi Community Education Center's Families First Program: Working to Reduce Recidivism
By: Jenny Cox Holman
Pictured: Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey; District Attorney John K. "Bubba" Bramlett Jr; Rankin County Judge Kent McDaniel; MCEC Special Projects Liaison Kenneth Magee; MCEC Community Outreach Coordinator Rick Cox; Mississippi Community Education Center Executive Director Dr. Nancy New; MCEC Program Coordinator Donte Jones; and MCEC Community Liaison Kevin Myers.
The red brake lights of vehicles brightly illuminated the road ahead. One after one the vehicles stopped on a normally, well-traveled interstate. The steady flowing pace of traffic abruptly came to a standstill that gradually spanned across miles. The culprit for the crippling traffic, a wreck on the road ahead, created a ripple effect of standstill traffic, causing miles of disruption.
Similar to the ripple effect caused by a wreck on a busy highway, the life choices we make during our journey in this life can have a ripple effect with cascading results. Behind bars and incarcerated in Mississippi’s jails and prisons are people whose choices, ones made quickly or collectively over time, have intersected with consequences. The ripple effects of one’s choices have a vast impact that changes the course of one’s life story and that of others: choices that make innocent victims senselessly suffer, or choices that create fatherless or motherless families, or choices that created sorrow-filled lives.
The future for many of the incarcerated will be spent as a life behind bars. After they serve their time, what is ahead for those who genuinely want to renew their life for good once they are released back into local communities?
For the incarcerated men and women in Mississippi jails and prisons, the thought of a new start after being released seems almost insurmountable and overwhelming. There are extensive barriers and setbacks these individuals face. Upon release, for many the road towards recidivism begins as the result of: a lack of proper treatment for mental health issues and addictions, low rates of education and poor literacy skills to obtain a job, and a lack of a support system to navigate life’s setbacks and celebrate successes.
Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) looks to be an avenue for second chances for those Mississippians currently incarcerated, and upon their release, MCEC strives to offer assistance to navigate life after serving time. “We are here for those incarcerated and parole-eligible inmates to offer resources for adequate services for second chances for a restored life filled with promise. We want those entering back into our community after serving time to know that we are a network of supporters to help them succeed,” said Dr. Nancy New, Executive Director of Mississippi Community Education Center.
Mississippi has the third-highest overall incarceration rate in the United States according to U.S. News & World Report and information obtained from the Department of Justice in May 2019. In June 2019, the Mississippi Department of Corrections stated that the average daily inmate population was 19,600. According to the NAACP, between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million. Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population.
“When many of these individuals are released from custody, they don’t have a support group or family or friends that they can turn to and help them as they are adjusting back into society. While individuals are incarcerated, teaching life skill classes like anger management, parenting, and how to manage your finances are important. I think we can partner with some of our community colleges to make sure people who are being released from custody have marketable jobs skills, whether that be things such as welding or plumbing or mechanics and those type of skills that are often in high demand. Also, the individuals should have access to continuing their education in some form of GED or form of online junior college classes. As a society we can do a better job of preparing individuals as they are getting ready to leave the Mississippi Department of Corrections and prepare them to reenter into society,” said Congressman Michael Guest.
Pivotal factors that set into motion reoffending are untreated substance abuse and undiagnosed mental illnesses. “If you have someone that has a chemical dependency or substance abuse issue of any kind and they go to jail and it is never treated, when they get out, they are going to return to that chemical dependency. There is this myth, ‘Put them in jail and that will clean them up and teach them their lesson.’ The reality is they just had a stop gap of using, but that does not constitute treatment; that just constitutes a lack of availability. The addiction has not been treated or the underlying causes nor have they been taught coping mechanisms, so when they are released, they are back in the same place they were when they entered jail,” said John Owen, CEAP, CAS, of Recovery Consultations and Addiction Educator Director.
Through offering Adult Addiction Education Program free of charge, resources are provided to begin the process of healing and recovery for those suffering with addiction. “We are here to connect the dots to get those suffering from addiction the adequate services they need to help support addiction recovery,” said Dr. Nancy New, Executive Director of Mississippi Community Education Center.
Looking beyond the statistics and facts on incarceration, Mississippians need a plan of action coupled with a proactive approach to reduce rates of recidivism in our state. We need to meet vital needs during incarceration to set forth the best chance for successful reentry into local communities. “The citizens of our state need to ask themselves, ‘Do they want those who are formerly incarcerated coming back to their community basically at the same place that they left the community?’ Or do they want that person to have prospects for jobs, become a valued member of society, and the community to be a safer and healthier environment because they received the necessary help and support during their incarceration,” said John Owen, CEAP, CAS, of Recovery Consultations and Addiction Educator Director.
In an effort to reduce the rates of recidivism and to help with post-release success, the Mississippi Community Education Center through its Families First curriculum teaches life skills from parenting and anger management classes, to workforce development courses, and classes to receive an accredited high school diploma to currently incarcerated men and women at select county jails in Central Mississippi. “During the time we’ve taught classes to the incarcerated in county jails in central Mississippi, we see many who have burned all the bridges and do not have a support system or resources for help. Those incarcerated come with so many barriers that hinder them from being able to succeed once they are released and it is really heartbreaking. For me and the work of our group, we want to be the boots on the ground and help others. The goal for the classes is to help these individuals successfully reenter the community upon release,” said Donte Jones, Program Coordinator with Mississippi Community Education Center.
In April 2019, around 40 incarcerated men and women in the Rankin County Correctional Facility Trustee Program were honored in a graduation ceremony to culminate the completion of life skills and workforce development courses. “These men and women have changed our outlook on people who are incarcerated. We are excited to be a part of their next step in turning their life around and becoming productive citizens in our communities and with their families,” said Jon Weeks, Mississippi Community Education Center Field Educator. Mississippi Community Education Center’s employees taught parenting, fatherhood, life skills, and workforce classes in conjunction with the current efforts underway in the Trustee Program by Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, Judge Kent McDaniel, District Attorney John K. (Bubba) Bramlett Jr., and Jon and Tomeka Weeks.
“By offering classes to help these inmates receive an accredited high school diploma free of charge, we want to lay the groundwork for success once they reenter into the community and into the workforce. To receive the best possible job opportunity, receiving a high school diploma can provide new opportunities for career choices. In addition to taking classes while incarcerated, Families First for Mississippi has resource centers located throughout the state of Mississippi, where they can complete required courses in computer labs,” said Kevin Myers, Community Liaison for Mississippi Community Education Center.
Mississippi’s prisons and jails are filled with people of all races, creeds, and incomes whose futures ended because of wrong decisions and unrelenting habits. The months and years spent behind bars for many bring transformation, reflection and a desire to have a new start when they finish their sentence.
In addition to practical skills to help with reentering society, having hope and support from the local community is central to the core of success. Faith-based groups throughout Mississippi graciously share kindness and hope to those who are currently incarcerated. Emily Kiker, a volunteer mentor in Central Mississippi for incarcerated women with a Christian mentoring group, said, “The opportunity to spend time with these women is so very humbling and eye-opening to realize that it really could be any of us and just a choice away. They are able to have a smile on their face and good attitudes because even in the darkest and lowest place in their lives they know that God doesn’t abandon them. The joy they have is because they know God loves them and is with them.”
Reflecting on choices that led to his time incarcerated, Warren, a current inmate in the Mississippi prison system, finds hope in knowing that his past doesn’t have to be his future. “We all make mistakes; some are bigger than others. But the most important part of moving forward in your life is accepting responsibility and forgiving yourself and accepting God’s forgiveness. It’s extremely important to know there are people who are able and willing to help upon release because an inmate had spent the majority of his or her sentence feeling alone, discarded by society. Someone who’s willing to help alleviates a lot of the stress of re-entry into the world because it’s so much bigger than the microcosm of the penitentiary. There are so many options, choices, and responsibilities that it can be overwhelming. Having a support system can be, and often is, the difference between making life-changing decisions and recidivism,” Warren said.
The Mississippi Community Education Center looks to reduce recidivism and provide new opportunities to make the right choices for individuals as they are reentering communities. “We hope our work creates a positive ripple effect – that one thing we may do can help change the life of another in a positive direction. There is a lot of downstream results that no one ever dreams about, that by helping one person, can change the course of the future for good. We are truly honored to be able to work alongside the efforts of others in our community,” said Kenneth Magee, Special Projects Liaison for Mississippi Community Education Center.