The new Fresh Start Visions program now underway at the county jail, for offenders wanting to place “ex” squarely in front of how they are referred to, has much to do with the church.
Just not the Church of Scientology, in any way, shape or form, despite the similarity in the Fresh Start name that Scientology’s Narconon program first coined.
“I don’t know what a Scientologist is,” said Tim Terry, the former South Carolina inmate who, after serving 15 years on a manslaughter charge, created and implemented in his home state a successful community collaboration for enabling ex-offenders to reenter society after a stint in prison.
Now, Terry is working closely with Sheriff A.J. Smith, and a host of church and community leaders, to pilot the introduction of the comprehensive, Christ-centered program into a county jail setting, beginning with Franklin.
Terry, 53, was on hand last week for an organizational meeting which helped lay the groundwork for the 50-week program that he argues, with data to back it up, can get people off the merry-go-round making a mess of their lives.
“We’re not a quick fix program,” he said. “We’re introducing a whole new culture change, the way you think, your work ethic, everything. We get us a D8, a bulldozer, and we keep plowing the ground until what’s been rooted for years comes up.
“I’m not promoting no easy fix,” Terry said.
He and Smith met several weeks ago, when the sheriff attended a meeting of a dozen pastors at the Carrabelle UMC Church, regarding the program Terry was starting at Franklin Correctional Institution, based on the model that has worked to lower the recidivism of state inmates in South Carolina.
“He started asking questions. He was so concerned about the continual revolving door,” said Terry. “When I seen his passion, I sat down and we had several meetings, to map out programs for the county jail.
“That’s what we’re working on now, to create a smaller model for the jail, that will establish that culture change,” he said.
Smith said sign-up sheets in the dorms have produced volunteers to populate a separate unit at the jail, and begin implementation of Fresh Start.
“We’ll start out with 16 man pod to create the infrastructure,” said Terry. “And over the course of the next 90 days, we’ll fine tune it and expand accordingly.
“We want to create ‘pro-social value living’ dorms, instead of them sitting in county jail, twiddling their thumbs,” he said. “We want to create a 7-24 learning environment.”
The new program has drawn high-profile support, including that of retired Army Maj. Gen. James Donald, a St. George Islander who used to head the Georgia Department of Corrections, and area clergymen, including Dan Husk, a volunteer chaplain at FCI, and Dr. Larry Sterling, who pastors the Eastpoint Church of God.
“The church community is getting on board with this,” Sterling said. “When they do that, that will help fund the program in this county.”
So far, the financial need here is comparatively small, since the beachhead program Terry began in Panama City requires a more costly investment of both residential units and employment options. Now in the works in Bay County, where job opportunities are more plentiful, this in time could serve the needs of some Franklin County residents.
“In order to get somebody off the drugs, they have to be out of their environment to nine months or a year,” said Terry. “The only way we’re going to change the cycle, we have to challenge the cycle, and sometimes it means removing people from their playgrounds.”
Smith said the goal in the county is to raise at least $1,500 a month in private donations, to pay part-time staff and to help with materials.
“Our community is hurting desperately right now,” said Sterling. “We have to come together to break this scourge on our community. Within the last 10 years the escalation is dramatic around here.
“It’s a great opportunity for these people to get broken off this stuff,” said the Eastpoint pastor. “The purpose is to change the person from the inside out.
“The message of Christ frees people,” said Sterling. “There’s something about the gospel that breaks the chain internally. That’s why we as a faith community are partnering together. “The faith community is just as hurting as everybody else is.”
Terry breaks down the purpose of Fresh Start to instill three core values.
“Number one, submitting to authority, number 2 learning to be accountable, and number 3 taking responsibility for your actions,” he said. “When you walk that path consistently, you create a culture shift and a character change.”
The local pastors, mentors, volunteers and even ex offenders who will be part of Fresh Start represent “a collaboration of skill sets,” Terry said.
“There are the grey-haired mentors who have wisdom they can give. And there are those who have ‘been there done that,’” he said. “Can’ nobody con a con.”
The sheriff stressed that Fresh Start will not replace any of the inmate outreach efforts that are now in place. “There are a lot of ministers who come out and minister. We’re not eliminating any programs. The faith-based will continue,” said Smith.
Once an inmate has proven himself or herself over many weeks, it is possible that they could qualify for housing in Panama City and get lined up for a job there.
“Nothings happens outside until we determine the character of the man inside. We have tools and techniques and assessments,” said Terry. “You can’t tell me you’ve changed you have to show it consistently. This is not a quick fix, you can’t wave a magic wand.”
Because the program is new this year to Panama City, and just being rolled-out in Franklin, many of the specifics remain to be fine-tuned, said Fresh Start’s backers.
The important thing now, is there is a lot of optimism that Fresh Start can put a major dent in the county’s drug abuse cycle that bedevils so many families.
“A lot of this is changing their attitude. It can’t happen overnight, it takes time,” said the sheriff. “They’re going to be housed together so they’re going to support each other and work together.
“This is just the beginning. We’re going to look at it (the county’s drug-related crime problems) from all angles,” said Smith. "It’s a community effort to help heal. If one person is successful, then it’s a successful project.”