The salvation of mass incarceration

S.C. UMW learn how former drug dealer found Jesus, started group for ex-prisoners

More photos from event at bottom of page—scroll down!

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—Jerry Blassingame grew up hating God.

When he was 5 years old, his mother was brutally murdered, shot dead by her boyfriend in the room next door.

The youngest of five children, Blassingame was raised by his grandmother, but that home, too, was broken. His oldest sister was addicted to heroin. The neighborhood around him was drug-infested, and his siblings all dropped out of school. His grandmother became an alcoholic, crumbling from the pressure of losing her husband and two daughters in a short time and now raising young children again. He had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and college—let alone Jesus—wasn’t a thought.

“Nobody told me about Jesus back then,” he said. “It was all about smoking, drinking. I drank my first beer from my own fridge.”

But when his life eventually spiraled into destruction, Jesus would end up not only becoming his savior but providing the path to his new reality: running a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs, re-enter society, come to faith and live full, productive lives.

Blassingame’s testimony, which he told before hundreds of South Carolina United Methodist Women gathered Feb. 11 for their annual Legislative Advocacy Day, helped underscore one of the group’s action themes: the problem of mass incarceration.

From selling drugs to knowing Jesus

Blassingame told the women gathered at Epworth Children’s Home that in his early years, school was his only escape, the only place he could find hope. He made straight As, and teachers began talking to him about college and his promising future.

After he graduated from high school, things began to improve. Blassingame got a two-year scholarship to Greenville Technical College and was looking forward to starting Clemson University.

But the influences of his childhood, the only influences he’d ever known, caught up with him. For Blassingame was also selling drugs. And when he got caught for the first time, sent to prison, and released, he soon realized his mistake would haunt him forever.

Now he had a criminal record, and no one would hire him. Every door slammed shut.

“I went back to selling cocaine,” he said.

The next time he was arrested, it was a huge bust, and no one would post bond. Stuck in jail awaiting his trial, he called his former-addict sister, who was now clean.

To his surprise, all she could talk about was Jesus.

“I hated Jesus! I hated God. I grew up hating God,” he said.

But his sister persisted. “She said, ‘Jerry, God is real. I’m praying for you.’”

Soon after, a United Methodist preacher was visiting the jail. As he walked the hall of the jail, Blassingame could hear him call out, “Anyone want to talk to a preacher?”

Blassingame said yes, though that willingness came with a hitch. His plan, he said, was to find Jesus, get out of jail, then go back to his old ways. Instead, something else happened. Jesus came into his heart.

Ignited with the Holy Spirit, Blassingame said, “I read the New Testament cover to cover three times in three weeks, but I didn’t understand it. I began to study the Bible.”

When the time came for his trial, Blassingame pled guilty.

“I told judge I’d become a Christian, and I said I’d serve my time with Jesus.”

And he meant it—that’s exactly what he began to do. Every day, for three and a half years, Blassingame read Scripture, writing down all he learned, all his questions.

“God started speaking to me,” he said.

Soon a new plan for his life had taken root in his heart. He wanted to get out of prison and start an organization to help people like him—people raised in social and economic despair, people who’d gone down the wrong path now seeking to start over.

Blassingame did 16 months in maximum security, then was shipped to a medium-security prison that didn’t even have a fence. Six month later, he was a cook at the Abbeville County Prison, working for the sheriff.

After he was released on parole in 1999, Blassingame began to carry out the dream God placed in his heart.

Today, he is founder and chief executive officer of a nonprofit ministry called Soteria Community Development Corporation.

Overcoming barriers

An economic and social justice organization, Soteria seeks to works with people impacted by the criminal justice system to create opportunities for previously incarcerated men to re-enter society through transitional housing, life skills and job training.

Soteria aligns government, churches, nonprofits and community leaders to bring about long-term positive change, actively improving the community and its people.

For as Blassingame told United Methodist Women, incarceration is huge problem facing communities and its people, and it is only getting worse, not better.

Mass incarceration, he explained, is a term used to describe the substantial increase in the number of incarcerated people in United States prisons over the past 40 years.

He said incarceration impacts more than 2.3 million adults and youth along with families and victims. One in 106 white males have convictions, with one in 36 Hispanic males and one in 16 black males. More than 70 million people have convictions, and it doesn’t come without a price, Blassingame noted. In South Carolina, the cost per incarcerated person in 2019 was more than $25,000. Given that the average incarceration is four years, that amounts to more than $100,000.

Worse, he said, once these people serve their time and are released, there are more than 48,000 laws or statutes that continue to punish people with criminal records. After their sentence is over, they face fines, lack of transportation, homelessness and minimal job opportunities—plus they often have no positive support network.

A year after their release, studies show more than 60 percent of people remain unemployed.

Soteria works to help provide a path to employment and hope by helping formerly incarcerated people overcome those barriers—ultimately helping society as a whole.

Getting people back on track

Blassingame said the keys to successful re-entry for incarcerated people are having a strong pre-release plan, community support, employment and safe housing. His organization works to address this and more. They help men get their GED and continue their education, and they offer job training and put men to work in both deconstruction of homes and crafting reclaimed furniture.

They also offer relapse prevention counseling, mentoring and financial counseling—something many of these men never had.

Faith is a big component, too. All Soteria House residents are required to attend weekly church service and do daily devotions.

Once they graduate from Soteria’s program, the men are then eligible for certain aid from the organization, including permanent housing, furniture and household supplies for independent living.

All of it is to help men like Blassingame—men who grew up hard, made mistakes, paid the price and are now working hard to get their lives back on track in the Lord.

‘Education drives everything’

Mass incarceration was just one of the issues South Carolina United Methodist Women discussed during their daylong annual advocacy event. Education reform, voter registration and rights, the economics of poverty, recycling, infant mortality and contagious diseases, and awareness about active shooters—and what to do—were among the topics the women addressed that day. The day started with greetings from the Rev. Ken Nelson on behalf of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. Nelson lifted up the work United Methodist Women do to advocate for those who don’t have voices.

Cathy Ford, president of SCCUMW, thanked those present for having a heart for the oppressed.

“Sometimes we find our voices are not as loud about issues we find more challenging to discuss, such as racism or criminalization of communities of color,” Ford said. “While we may not be publicly rallying for oppression … our silence on these issues can make us complicit in the marginalization of these communities.”

The Rev. Brenda Kneece of South Carolina Christian Action Council spoke against the death penalty, noting that for every nine executed, one is found innocent afterward.

The Hon. Rita Allison, a legislator from the Spartanburg District in the South Carolina House of Representatives and the chair of the House Education andPublicWorks Committee, spoke next about a massive education reform bill that passed the House last year and is now working its way through the Senate.

“We are trying to do what we can do for the people of South Carolina,” Allison said.

She noted the goal is, “Every child no matter what their zip code is will have the opportunity for a quality teacher in the classroom and also a quality education.”

The bill includes moving teacher salaries to a national level, smaller class sizes, as well as school resource officers and mental health counselors in every school in the state.

“We know education drives everything,” Allison said. “The funding formula we adopted in 1972 is no longer working for us.”

From voter rights to poverty awareness

In addition to speakers, attendees had the opportunity to learn in different workshops. “Making Re-Entry Work” was led by Alston Wilkes Society. “Voter Registration, Voter Rights, ERA” was led by the Columbia League of Women Voters. “Poor Peoples’ Moral Budget: a SC View of the Economics of Poverty,” “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,” ”Infant Mortality and Contagious Diseases” and “Active Shooter Awareness” rounded out the morning,

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