Project Return expands to Chattanooga to help formerly incarcerated people find work and success

·7 min read

Nov. 27—Every year, Tennessee penitentiaries release nearly 15,000 people — nearly 300 a week — after they have served their sentences.

Many of the former inmates struggle to find work and readjust to life outside of prison and end up committing crimes that put them back in the prison system.

Nearly half of those released from jail in Tennessee are back behind bars within three years, according to the Tennessee Governor's Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.

A nonprofit group that recently expanded into Chattanooga is trying to limit such recidivism and, in the process, help local employers find needed workers and limit state and local incarceration expenses.

Project Return, started in 1979 by a pair of Nashville ministers eager to help those coming out of prison, expanded to Chattanooga this fall with its support services, skills training and job placement for former inmates.

Aided by a state grant and donations from both the Unum and Chattanooga Gas foundations, Project Return opened a 10-person office in downtown Chattanooga after Labor Day and has begun to train and supply workers for a handful of Chattanooga employers and is preparing to work with many others.

"We have a very replicable model, and we made growth a part of our strategic plans in 2017, which we've been serious about exploring ever since," said Bettie Kirkland, CEO of Project Return for the past couple of years. "In looking where to expand, we saw that Chattanooga's economy was very strong, and we see similarities with Nashville, so we thought this would be a great place for our first stop."

Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he encouraged Kirkland to expand Project Return to Chattanooga when he first heard about the program a couple of years ago when its backers were seeking more state aid for their counseling and job placement efforts.

"To their credit, they listened to that request, and here we are today," Watson said during a dedication ceremony this month for Project Return's new facility at 620 Lindsay St. in downtown Chattanooga.

"This is an area where we have struggled across our state. People who have been incarcerated and have served their time too often struggle to be reintegrated back into society, and to me, we have failed these individuals in too many instances. We are thrilled that programs of this caliber and this quality are now in Hamilton County."

Over the past three decades in Nashville, Project Return says it has cut the recidivism rate among its enrollees to less than a third of the statewide average and offered a more promising future for thousands of Tennesseans.

Many people released from state prisons and county jails are freed late at night, sometimes without any transportation or means to find suitable overnight housing, let alone a job to begin to pay their expenses and repay fines imposed from the jail terms.

"The lucky ones released from prison have a bus route," Kirkland said. "Most have only the clothes on their back. This is a recipe for failure, and that is why we are here to change that."

Project Return seeks to provide wrap-around services to former inmates to give them temporary shelter, food, clothing, proper identification and transportation, along with job leads and assistance, to help get people working and making money again while they get back on their feet.

That not only helps the individuals involved but also provides a needed source of labor for businesses.

"This is also a great opportunity for employers, especially at a time when so many are struggling to fill their jobs," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said. "We all know where we are today with our labor shortages, and with Project Return's tried and true program of job placement, this is a big help for its enrollees and our community, and we're so excited to have this program here."

Kelly said in talking with Chattanoogans during his mayoral campaign earlier this year, he saw how big of a problem incarceration and recidivism is in Chattanooga. With 5% of the world's population, the U.S. has 25% of the global prison population. The number of people incarcerated continues to grow in Tennessee, which ranks 12th in per capita inmate population.

Steve Blackmon, president of the metal fabricating firm Rogers Manufacturing in Nashville, has used Project Return's employment services over the past five years to hire about 30 workers.

"We've been very pleased with those we've hired," Blackmon said. "We've seen a lot of people who want to change their lives. They come in here and see an opportunity and grab on to it, and Project Return does a great job in helping people make this transition."

Blackmon said staffing "has been a tremendous challenge" in the current economic environment, and he is looking for a variety of workers willing to learn and grow with his company.

"I'm not interested in what they have done," he said. "I'm interested in what they are going to do, starting today."

Tiffany Callaway Ferrell, vice president of operations for Southern Co.'s Atlanta Gas and Chattanooga Gas utilities, said the gas company's foundation decided to support Project Return because of its success in placing more than 80% of its participants in Nashville in private-sector jobs.

"When people have done their time and done what they are supposed to do, we have to be willing to give them an opportunity for a new life," she said. "Think about the things you have done in your life. You may not have gone to jail for what you did, but nearly all of us have done things we've been given grace for and given a second chance for. We owe that to the participants in Project Return."

For employers who may be reluctant to immediately place formerly incarcerated people on their payroll, Project Return employs those it helps itself through its own staffing service known as PRO Employment.

In Nashville, Project Return also operates another social enterprise known as PRO Housing, which provides apartments for program participants. Chattanooga has yet to add the housing service, Kirkland said, but the agency is working with a variety of landlords to help locate housing for those needing such assistance.

"We believe in those we work with and will wrap around them and do everything we can to make them successful," she said. "There is a huge transportation gap, so we'll also drive people back and forth to work every day. When you drive one of our vans, you are literally chauffeuring a person to a brighter future when you pick them up."

Project Return works with people who are felons or have done at least 90 days in jail for a serious misdemeanor getting released "no matter your crime, no matter your time and no matter your number of times [in prison]," Kirkland said.

Most are coming out of state prisons, although some also are just being released from county jails.

"We're asking them to choose us when they get out," Kirkland said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said his own passion for helping jail inmates was "planted in my heart" two decades ago when he began working with a prison ministry that paired inmates with mentors. Lee, who campaigned on criminal justice reforms before taking office in 2019, praised Project Return's record in helping those who have been in jail to find jobs and reintegrate into society.

"For years, Project Return has given formerly incarcerated Tennesseans the tools and resources to ensure a successful transition back into the community," the governor said. "Their programs break the cycle of incarceration, strengthen our workforce and give men and women across our state a chance the thrive."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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