Their success in life will define his success as governor and Arkansas’ success as a state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) told 13 graduates of The Exodus Project, a program that helps Arkansas Community Corrections inmates transition into civilian life.
The program requires inmates in the last four months of their sentences to complete 240 hours of classes on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Those classes focus on four areas: ethics and character based on biblical teachings; career development; resource management where inmates build a long-term plan; and recovery and restoration.
“If you can succeed in your goals, then guess what? I will be successful as governor, and our state will be successful,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson handed diplomas to the graduates at the end of a line of instructors who received emotional hugs from the graduates. During the program, graduates Katherine Evans and Stanley Todd, an Operation Desert Storm veteran, spoke of their addiction and the impact the program has had on their life.
In the audience was Robert Long, who graduated Sept. 28 and still lives in the transitional Hidden Creek home operated by the ministry. After previously being what he called a “hopeless drug addict” who was addicted to methamphetamine, he now sells cars at Subaru of Little Rock and sold 11 last month. He brought a new 2016 Legacy to the event and was prospecting for business before it began.
“The truth of the matter is, I have transformed. You’re looking at a different man,” he said.
The program began seven-and-a-half years ago, but its new form took shape in February. This is the seventh graduating class since then. Fifteen begin each class, and 100 are expected to complete the program this year. Paul Chapman, who co-founded the program along with Arkansas Baptist College President Fitz Hill, said it’s too early to know the prison recidivism rate for the program. Chapman said most of the participants are recovering addicts.
“There are certain wounds and hurts that our students typically have that must be dealt with before you can go on a journey to become a productive member, to have healthy relationships and then start your career path,” he said.
Hutchinson said when he became governor, he was told the state needed to spend $100 million to build a new prison. Instead, it has spent $50 million to construct new prison space and $14 million for re-entry programs, alternative sentencing courts, and more parole officers.
Hutchinson has made civil justice reform a centerpiece of his administration. He spoke Thursday at an event about that subject in New Orleans sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute. In August, he hosted a faith-based summit focused on helping inmates re-enter civilian life and encouraging Arkansans to foster and adopt children. He said, historically, inmates merely have been given $100 and a bus ticket as they leave prison. Chapman said employment is a key to helping inmates re-enter society. He said only 53% of parolees have full-time employment.
“You’re not going to be able, with church involvement, which is good, with even education – but if we don’t move the needle on full-time employment, everything else (will) struggle to make a true difference. … It’s idle hands,” he said.
He said residents of the transitional Hidden Creek facility average finding jobs in two weeks, but it only serves 30 graduates at a time. The ministry is working on a model that churches in Arkansas could adopt.
Hutchinson encouraged private employers to hire felons after they have served their sentence and said his administration purposely had hired one to set an example and to give that person a second chance.
“Let’s get beyond the checking of the box. Let’s give someone a chance to have a second chance,” he said.
Hutchinson said the ministry is aptly named after the biblical story of Israel being led by Moses into the Promised Land.
“Exodus is leaving, it is departing, it is going away from the enslavement that was in the land of Egypt,” he said.
The program is funded through donor dollars.