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During his 15 years in the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) system, Tim Terry noticed a glaring hole in the way South Carolina helped people transition from prison back to their communities. 

“For years I watched volunteers come into the prison and preach,” Terry said. “But there were no programs designed to help men and women build the character to live successfully, transitioning from the inside to the outside.”

Instead of waiting for his release from prison to solve the problem, Terry designed a reentry program while incarcerated. And after being paroled in 2002, Terry has continued to make reentry his life’s work.

“I was struck by how many people would get released from prison and return in just 30, 60 or 90 days later,” he said.

The most recent report on recidivism from the Bureau of Justice statistics found that “about 66% of prisoners released across 24 states in 2008 were arrested within three years, and 82% were arrested within 10 years.” 

According to SCDC statistics, South Carolina has one of the lowest three-year recidivism rates is the U.S., hovering around 20%, but Terry has witnessed plenty of people fail in their vow to leave prison and never return.  

He recalled the sad story of one young man who, within just hours of release, was arrested.

“I began to interview inmates and ask them, ‘Why is it so difficult to succeed out in society?’” Terry said.

With each inmate he received the exact same response: They couldn’t find a place to live, a job or a community that would accept them.

Equipped with this information, Terry began to map out a plan. For the last eight years of his incarceration, he applied this plan first to his own life.

“I asked myself, ‘What would I do in my own transition after 15 years?’” Terry said.

That’s how Terry started FreshStart Visions: Men In Transition. Over the last two decades, Terry and a group of dedicated volunteers have applied his successful reentry plan to an intense 18-week program inside correctional facilities. But the plan doesn’t end with an 18-week class and a shiny certificate.

“We offer transition services to all of our graduates by establishing them in transitional housing, helping secure employment and introducing them to a local support group that will provide ongoing assistance,” Terry said.

Nearly all incarcerated people will return to their communities at some point and many need help readjusting. The sooner people consider their futures, the better, Terry said.

“Every inmate has to start asking himself right now, ‘What will I do when I am released?’” Terry said. “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

Since it began in 2002, FreshStart, which is a Christian ministry, has had over 500 incarcerated individuals successfully complete the inside program, with about 20% seeking placement in the transitional housing upon their release.

At present, the nonprofit organization offers 12 different transitional houses, and operates facilities and programs in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and Maryland.

But the organization’s work has had opposition. Most recently, plans to open a large site in Walterboro angered local residents who did not want formerly incarcerated people living in their community. Residents voiced specific concerns about people with sex offenses living at the house.

In response, an earlier zoning decision that allowed Fresh Start to operate a transitional house was revoked. 

“We remain firmly committed to our mission of providing transition services to incarcerated individuals returning to society and reducing recidivism rates,” Terry said.

In 2022, FreshStart merged with Shield Ministries to broaden the scope and ability to reach and serve even more incarcerated people both inside of prisons and upon release.

FreshStart Visions: Men In Transition is now offered at five SCDC facilities: Allendale Correctional Institution, Tyger River Correctional Institution, Trenton Correctional Institution, Turbeville Correctional Institution and MacDougall Correctional Institution.

The organization’s 18-week course in correctional facilities focuses on developing character traits that will help an individual find employment and transition back into the community as a productive member of society.

The “outside” program picks up where the prison course ends, helping the newly released achieve four primary goals: find and hold a job; manage money and develop budgeting skills; manage time wisely to achieve their goals; and manage relationships effectively.

Once accepted into the outside reentry program, each individual is required to attend and participate in mandatory classes and training to help them attain their goals. 

FreshStart offers continuing education upon release with recognized courses in commercial driver’s training, leading to a license in truck driving with placement upon successful completion; HVAC certification; computer skills classes; resume preparation; job search and interview skills; and ongoing personal development.

FreshStart also provides housing, transportation, employment placement, mentoring and full access to medical, dental, and counseling services. Each individual is assigned a case manager to assist in developing and achieving a plan for successful transition and independence within 18 months of release.

Second chances, Terry believes, must complement participants’ will to succeed.

“You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep repeating the last one,” he said. “If you’re not willing to learn, no one can help you, but if you are determined to learn no one can stop you.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Gary K. Farlow is a writer and the author of “Prisonese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang.” He is incarcerated in South Carolina.