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BENTONVILLE -- Organization leaders from Northwest Arkansas gathered Saturday to learn and discuss some best practices for advocating, embracing and working with men and women after their arrest and upon re-entry to communities.

Arkansas prisons experience one of the nation's highest recidivism rates of almost 52 percent over a three-year period, according to the latest data from the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Nick Robbins is the executive director for Returning Home, the organization that hosted Saturday's event. Robbins brought in local and national speakers to share what they have seen work in reducing these rates.

"We've got a long way to go in Arkansas, and our goal is take what is working elsewhere and find out how we can place it here so these men and women can transition better and be part of the community," Robbins said. "Right now, there are so many barriers pushing them back."

Robbins and others at the event talked about how many of these housing, education and job barriers are caused by lack of community acceptance and trap many in a cycle of incarceration. Affordable housing specifically can already be difficult to find in Northwest Arkansas; multiply that when someone is a felon, Robbins said.

The Returning Home Center strives to connect nonprofit groups together to best serve clients. While several organizations exist in Northwest Arkansas to help formerly incarcerated men and women, they are often siloed.

Narcotics Anonymous, Arkansas Community Correction, Dress for Success Northwest Arkansas, Goodwill and many other groups were present Saturday.

Speaker Marty Hausam is the Arkansas re-entry programs manager at Goodwill Industries of Arkansas. Goodwill works to help with re-entry employment through training and education and sometimes hires those who go through the program itself.

"As a community, we have to realize that we all have baggage and we all have messed up. If we keep a label on somebody for being a felon and not hiring them, we are missing some amazing workers," Hausam said. "Don't just try to talk employers into hiring felons, be the employer who hires felons."

Brenda Stringfellow said she went through a re-entry program. The common denominator in success cases is having some kind of continued support group, she said.

"We need that old idea of what an ex-con is taken away," Stringfellow said. "Our clients coming out of incarceration can be an asset to our community. Until we break the stigma we aren't going to break the cycle."

Speaker Jerry Blassingame told his personal story of being incarcerated in South Carolina for the second time at the age of 27 on felony drug charges. He was sentenced to 20 years, but was released in less than four and was determined to turn his life around, he said.

Blassingame returned to college despite financial hurdles because of his record but then ran up against another: the state would not allow him to get his architecture license. That's when he decided to start a nonprofit group, now Soteria Community Development Corporation in South Carolina.

He said he used his skills and the encouragement of others to both empowering individuals recently out of prison through internships and mentorships as well as providing transitional housing. These people help the community by flipping properties, recycling materials and more.

Blassingame and others shared many of their successes, and Robbins said he hopes this summit is the first of many.

NW News on 08/26/2018

Print Headline: Summit addresses issues in prisoners re-entry into community

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