The chances he would fail as a free citizen were “10 out of 10” so Byron Ferguson turned down an opportunity many of the 50,000-plus Georgia prison inmates would jump at: Parole.
“I’m not ready,” Ferguson, 56, said when his counselor told him the first week of February he would be paroled in seven days, just weeks after he had moved into a LaGrange transitional center.
Ferguson, who has spent almost all his adult life in and out of prison, fears he doesn't know how to survive outside of prison. So he turned down a chance to cut short his three-year sentence for a chance at a better life once he's ready for the outside.
Georgia operates 13 “transitional centers,” also called halfway houses, to ease prisoners back into society. At the centers prisoners may work at an outside job and learn new skills for avoiding old habits once they are released. But the programs remain stubbornly small, despite a growing demand for them.
Experts on criminal justice and numerous studies agree that time spent in a transitional program can reduce recidivism, the rate at which offenders return to crime and prison.
Helping inmates re-enter society is a key pillar of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform that he launched soon after taking office in 2010. The Legislature passed the final bill in that effort last week and that bill is awaiting the governor's signature.
And earlier this year, the White House announced “principles” for prison reform that included expanding re-entry and work programs.
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“You need a place to live and to get some stability when you’re coming out of incarceration,” said Jesse Jannetta, senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington. “Some are fortunate that (they have) family nearby, or a good safe place waiting for them. Most people don’t have that.”
But despite the renewed interest in justice reform and the work to stop repeat offenders, in Georgia the number of beds in its transitional centers has not increased. Often, every bed stays filled at the 13 centers.
Tired of the life he has lived for three-plus decades, Ferguson secured one of the rare openings in a halfway house and he wants to keep it. Ferguson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that even if it means more months of lost freedom, he didn’t want to be released only to return to prison for an 11th time.
“It was a conundrum for me,” Ferguson told a reporter just hours after he officially turned down parole. “Everybody wants to be free. I want to be free… But I knew in my heart I was setting myself up for failure.”
Sam Chapman was released from prison without going through a halfway house. Chapman was convicted in 2008 of family violence and battery. He said he asked several times to go to a transitional center.
First, he was told he was not eligible because he had too much time remaining on his sentence. Later, he was told he didn’t have enough.
His re-entry plan was $25 on a debit card issued by the Department of Corrections, and three months at a boarding house in Macon paid for by the state. He walked out with only the clothes he was wearing and his sole identification was his prison ID card.
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“All they do is throw your butt out here and say ‘good riddance,’” Chapman said.
He found work doing odd jobs but, “you can’t live off of what I’m making here after paying for transportation and (personal hygiene items), the little things. I pretty much stay broke,” Chapman wrote in an exchange via Facebook.
For the most part, the state depends on the kindness of charities, churches and the private sector to provide programs and assistance to recently released inmates. For example, Chapman said, he got up at 4:30 one morning to walk three miles to a charity in Macon that once a week gives 10 homeless people a $32 check to obtain a state ID card.
“I constantly wrote counselors, begging to go (to a transitional center) for years,” Chapman wrote in an exchange on Facebook. “I would tell them that I have nowhere to go. I’m very fortunate to have several sought-after skills, though, so work has never been an issue with me. It was always drugs. but I’m through with that. All I wanted was an opportunity to get on my feet.”
Centers always overbooked
Georgia’s transitional centers offer former inmates the best chance for success when they return to the community. Among inmates released directly from prison, one in three will return. But for inmates that go through a transitional center, only one in five wind up back behind bars, according to the Department of Corrections.
At any given time, the state can house about 2,400 inmates at its 13 transitional centers; 11 of them for men and two for women.
That number has held steady for decades, but the need is far greater.
About 17,000 inmates are released from prison each year, leaving to begin parole or having finished their sentences. Last year, 2,419 were released from a transitional center.
Getting into a center is “a numbers game,” said Tommy Fountain, the statewide transitional center coordinator for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Inmates are eligible to stay in a transitional center if they have 12 to 15 months left before their sentenced is completed. Inmates who have histories of escaping or multiple disciplinary problems are not allowed at the centers. Arsonists are not eligible and only sex offenders who have no restrictions on where they can live are eligible.
Mostly it’s about timing.
“As their names comes up, if they meet the criteria and if there is a bed, they go to it,” Fountain said. “If their number doesn’t come up by the time there’s an open bed, then they don’t get to go. …. There’s not enough beds for everybody.”
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human rights, said the lack of resources for inmates transitioning from prison shows “we have so much further yet to go when it comes to criminal justice reform. We’ve made some strong progress on the front end by diverting people with addictions to appropriate … programs and now the time has come for us to do the same for people to be released from prison.”
“Easier on the inside”
Ferguson fought to keep his bed in the LaGrange transitional center because he believes he’s the kind of inmate who needs to be there.
An addict, Ferguson has never committed a violent crime, though he has been in the state prison system 10 times since 1987. He was arrested 79 times and has 22 felony convictions for crimes he committed so he could buy drugs — theft by deception, theft by taking, credit card theft, breaking into cars, prowling and burglary.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Tom Campbell noted that last time Ferguson was in court the chances Ferguson would continue to commit crimes once he finished his prison sentence were “10 out of 10. It’s the worst possible assessment you can get,” Campbell said.
Ferguson pleaded for help.
“When I get out, I still have no place to go,” Ferguson told Campbell. “Can you mandate for me transitional housing or something of that nature? … Because otherwise I’m right back in the situation I was when I got out last time.”
Campbell put it in the order.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Ferguson asked for several months about his chances to enter one of the centers, but never got a response. By December, Ferguson had less than a year remaining on his sentence and was just weeks away from being paroled. Both dates were critical because they made him ineligible for a transitional center.
Yet, just days after Christmas, he transferred to Charles D. Hudson Transitional Center in LaGrange. Ferguson believes he was moved because he wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the newspaper responded to the Department of Corrections with a request for an interview.
Then, a little more than a month after arriving at the center in LaGrange, where he should have stayed six months to a year, Ferguson was told he was being paroled in a week — a move that would mean he would lose access to the help provided there.
Ferguson decided he was not ready emotionally or financially and so he turned down parole.
“That kind of situation is rare,” Parole Board spokesman Steve Hayes said.
“Life is easier on the inside sometimes,” Ferguson said during a recent phone call from the center just before leaving for work. “You know what to expect. You know what the rules are… Free society don’t function according to the rules behind the razor wire.”
Ferguson said he will ask the Parole Board to consider granting him parole this summer.
If they turn him down, he might stay in the LaGrange center until the end of the year when he will have served every day of a three-year prison sentence for burglary, entering an auto and theft by taking.
“Right now smoking dope don’t make sense to me.” Ferguson said. “You will never be rejected by the streets. You will never be rejected by the dope. I don’t trust my own way of thinking. I’m 56 and I’m on the back end of my life. I have to do something to make a difference. I don’t want this to be my epithet.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had been looking at the problems with inmates re-entering society when a letter from Byron Ferguson arrived telling of his frustration at not being able to get admitted to one of Georgia’s “transitional centers,” or halfway houses, before he is paroled or released.
The AJC responded, asking for an interview. Contrary to Department of Corrections policies, the letter from the AJC was opened and copied and then given to the inmate on Dec. 23, 2017. He was moved to a transitional center just a few days after Christmas.
The Department of Corrections declined the AJC’s request to interview Ferguson, claiming he had recently been cited for a disciplinary infraction. DOC declined to provide any details.
Ferguson, who was in jail for the 10th time, said he was one of a number of inmates written up in 2014, during a previous incarceration, for not wearing the proper DOC uniform but the “charges” were dismissed once he and the other inmates appealed.
After just a few weeks at the center, and one day after the AJC inquired about his case, Ferguson was offered parole even though the typical program is much longer. He refused the offer.
Over the course of several weeks, short interviews were conducted when Ferguson could borrow a cell phone, which are allowed in transitional centers even though they are banned in prisons. Eventually, he saved enough money to get his own cell phone, which gave him more freedom to answer questions.