Katie Clark says Charlotte offers excellent agencies and programs to help recently released prisoners and their families.
The problem, she discovered last year, is many of the programs were stretched too thin.
“There's not a need for a new project (to help people in the prison system),” said Clark, who works for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Instead, Clark realized that helping the agencies share their resources would help all of them.
In 2008, she founded the Transformation Network in Charlotte, an umbrella group that works with agencies and churches that help people in all stages of incarceration and post-incarceration.
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She said she's been pleasantly surprised at the response she's received from the groups. Representatives from agencies and churches have been willing to come to Saturday meetings and participate in events the Transformation Network has sponsored.
“They're getting access to a lot more resources,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of joy (in agencies realizing), ‘You already have that (resource), and I'll just tap into it and keep doing what I do well.'”
The goal of the Transformation Network is to reduce recidivism in Charlotte and provide a “one-stop shop” for people who have been released from prison.
“They can go to one place and say, 'I need help with these five things,' and we can connect them with these five types of agencies,” Clark said.
The biggest needs for people coming out of prison are employment and housing, Clark said. Thousands of people recently released from prison re-enter regular life in Charlotte each year, often with little money, no job and nowhere to live.
Many of them want to change, Clark said. But when they can't even land an interview because they have to check the box on job applications indicating a prior criminal record, they have no way to earn money. They then have no way to pay for a place to live, and they easily can fall back into old criminal habits.
Some people need a whole new group of friends, Clark said, as former inmates' friends and families may be involved in the same destructive activities that resulted in them landing in prison in the first place.
That's where churches can step in.
Churches that “get it” – or aren't frightened of people who have been in prison – can provide mentoring, a supportive community and help that people need to get their post-prison lives started, Clark said.
The Transformation Network hopes to find two or three churches in each of Charlotte's ZIP codes willing to help people with criminal records and their families. Several churches, including Grace Covenant Church, Charlotte First Baptist Church and Hickory Grove Baptist Church, already are on board.
Clark said people often first have to get over the fear of working with people who have been in prison.
“It would be huge if our community could understand the needs of these people and that they are not all that different,” Clark said. “If you understood their background and their life story, you'd understand what happened and why it happened.”
Clark said one much-needed service that churches can offer is one-on-one mentoring for people just out of prison. Often, they don't need advice, just someone to tell them they can succeed.
“It's not solving their problems for them, it's just being a friend,” Clark said. “It's a lot of encouragement and believing in them.”
People just out of prison might also need temporary places to live, transportation to and from work until they can buy their own, and help finding a job, Clark said.
Churches also can help by volunteering in prisons and working with families of people who are in prison, Clark said.
The Transformation Network offers training for churches that want to work with people with criminal records and their families. The group also offers support groups, training for mentors and ongoing support for churches.