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A new direction after prison

By Jessica Brodie

They call him “Unk,” a kind-faced man in his 50s who is quick with a smile and has an easy rapport with the men working alongside him. But it wasn’t always that way—something Unk knows well. In September, Unk was released from prison after 25 years behind bars. At first he was happy about the release, but reality set in.

“I had a hard time adjusting. The whole world is different now.”

While he lived with family members upon release, “I’d stay in my room or sit on the back porch, depressed. One day my niece caught me crying, and I told her, ‘I don’t feel like I belong.’ I even considered doing something to get myself locked back up again, because it’s all I know.”

His probation officer visited and told Unk about Turn90. Within days he was part of the program.

Now, he’s outspoken and happy, brimming over with laughter. He celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with his Turn90 family, and he’s learned how to cope and to deal with people and difficult situations.

“I don’t think I’d have made it if not for this program. I’ve learned it’s OK; it’s not over for me. I have a new beginning.”

Unk is one of a number of men learning to rebuild his life thanks to the four-month program offered by Turn90, which started in Charleston and opened its Columbia location in October. It plans to open a Greenville facility next year.

Turn90 offers case management, cognitive behavioral classes, transitional work and job placement to reduce recidivism by helping people succeed after prison.

“I call it a therapeutic social enterprise,” said Amy Barch, founder and director of Turn90, noting she is hoping Turn90’s model will become a nationwide example for how to address and conquer long-term prison-release issues and not simply slap a bandage on problems.

“I really want to show that we as a society can do better in helping people succeed after prison,” Barch said. “People go in with a whole host of problems—cycles, lifetimes, years of problems—and you can’t just address one. We need to do more, and this is an example of what ‘more’ can look like.”

Currently they have an active board of directors and a staff of 12—four in Columbia and four in Charleston (classroom facilitator, case/social worker, print shop manager and flow manager at each), and four doing global infrastructure (communications, sales, operations, and her as executive director). Five of the eight program staffers are program graduates. The board comprises law enforcement, attorneys, business people and others in criminal justice.

Longtime civil rights attorney Stuart Andrews, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Blythewood, is one of Turn90’s board members and is passionate about the work they do.

“I’ve been doing criminal justice reform work most of my career, and what was missing in the state was a program that was focused on inspiring formerly incarcerated people to do the work necessary to prepare for successful reentry,” Andrews said. “It’s an ambitious undertaking that met a dire need.”

A real business

Just ask program participant Alex, who calls Turn90 “a lifesaver.” Convicted for selling drugs, Alex relapsed after being clean for 22 years and went to jail. He served his time and was out on parole, but then he violated the conditions of his probation and went back in. Before, he had been living in a camper, but while incarcerated, his camper was stolen, so he was homeless.

“Without a place to live, you can’t get out, and I needed a job, too,” Alex said.

A pastor connected him to Turn90, which helped him find a place to live and a spot in the program. Now, he’s rebuilding his life. He got his license back and recently filed his taxes for the first time since 2016.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Alex said.

Barch explained that people like Alex are exactly why they do what they do—to help them authentically embrace the programs offered, learn job and life skills and get back on track.

Turn90’s program runs daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The men work on behavioral and other skills in class from 9 to 10:45 a.m., then they work in Turn90’s print shop the rest of the day, where they participate in a fully functioning high-quality screen-printing business that produces T-shirts, sweatshirts and other garments.

“It’s a real business,” Barch said.

Barch started Turn90 in 2011 after growing up in what she calls “a very privileged life.” She developed a heart for incarcerated people when she did an internship in college, and it changed the trajectory of her life.

She began volunteering at the Charleston County jail teaching restorative justice classes and skills to develop emotional coping, thinking and problem-solving to men, and the effort had so much success that she quit her job and built local support while developing a program model, then called Turning Leaf.

At first an alternative to prison program, they started over in 2016 as a community-based reentry program, focusing on helping men make a successful transition from prison. At their site in North Charleston, they opened the Turning Leaf Print Shop in 2017, providing part-time employment to participants with the most barriers to success. The program transitioned into a full-day program, with 150 hours of cognitive behavioral classes, weekly case management sessions, transitional work in the Print Shop (with the men paid for the entire work day) and placement into a job with a livable wage, benefits and opportunity for advancement. They’re doing the same at their site in Columbia and will do it in Greenville, too.

“It’s more than filling the gap,” Barch said. “It’s a genuine bridge.”

‘The best of Christianity’

After all, the men need help. And as Barch said, there are very few people advocating for this population, and the risk factors are complicated. Also, there is an incorrect assumption that people get adequate resources and guidance when they come out of prison, which is just not the case.

“People getting out of prison deserve help,” Barch said. “We truly love our guys and want the best for them.”

Andrews believes the program will ultimately enable them to quality for national funding to expand the model statewide, which is something much-needed.

“The Department of Justice has yet to identify a program they regard as establishing best practices for the reentry of incarcerated people into the community,” Andrews said. “We believe based on our experience in Charleston and initially in Columbia that Turn90 can be that model.”

For him as a United Methodist, Turn90 represents the best of Christianity.

“It acknowledges the capability we all have for grace and redemption and to turn around our lives with a community of love and support and forgiveness,” Andrews said. “That’s what the program is designed to do, not only through the counselors and the staff but through each other, the group process, where the men are literally able to support each other as they’re practicing the development of their skills. Through this process, they can recover lives that were cast aside.”

Barch wishes there were a host of people passionate about the work they do, but she’s content to know that the men of Turn90 are experiencing redemptive, transformative lives one day at a time. “This shouldn’t be an anomaly,” Barch said. “We provide homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, soup kitchens. Why not this?”

Learn more about Turn90, or inquire about their screen-printing services, at https://turnninety.com.

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