Before 28-year old Timothy King was convicted of second degree murder in 2009, he says he spent the majority of his time running with the wrong people.
“There was a night at this one party where a guy was cutting himself and trying to throw blood on people and I asked him to leave and he wasn’t happy about it. And from that point on, the next few nights he was openly threatening people and my wife at the time.”
King says the threats escalated, leading him and a friend to send a violent message.
“We had decided that it was a brilliant idea to go take him out to this field and rough him up and let him know not to be coming to our town and all this and then it went too far and the guy I was with, he ended up killing him with a baseball bat.”
King and his accomplice were convicted of killing 20-year old Justin McKinney in a rural part of Faulkner County in 2007. King received a 30-year sentence. He'll be eligible for parole in 2016.
In 2013, Arkansas saw the largest single-year increase of its prison population in state history. The spike was largely due to the re-incarceration of large numbers of parolees, after new, stricter rules were put in place last year dealing with those who violate the terms of their parole.
While the influx of new prisoners has driven calls for a new state prison, there has also been a push for state agencies to do more to cut back on recidivism.
Every year, somewhere between 6500 and 7500 inmates are released from prisons in Arkansas, with 100 dollars in their pockets and sometimes a bus ticket. But assisting inmates in their successful return to the community—also known as the reentry process—has been a struggle, says Sheila Sharp, director of Arkansas Community Correction.
“We feel we’re responsible for reentry in the state and I don’t believe there’s been as much done as needs to be done,” she says
Sharp was appointed by the Board of Corrections last year after controversy surfaced surrounding the repeat violations of parolees, like absconder Darrell Dennis, who was charged with the killing of 18-year old Forrest Abrams in Little Rock in May 2013.
She says the resulting enactment of stricter rules for parolees was “essential for public safety”, but, “there should be other alternatives—less expensive alternatives—than the higher cost prison beds.”
It currently costs the state more than 60 dollars a day to keep an inmate behind bars, according to the Department of Correction.
Finding alternatives to re incarceration led the Arkansas Legislature to pass Act 1190 last year. It called for a plan to better reduce recidivism (defined by the state as re-arrest, re-conviction or re-incarceration) and foster more cooperation among state agencies, as well as among community and faith-based organizations that already help former inmates reintegrate into society.
Kevin Murphy, director of Reentry Services for the ACC, says his department and the Department of Correction already have programs to ease an inmate’s way back into the free world.
“We’ve tried to organize those, get them more consistent and also enhance not only what we have in existing programs, but also add to those. And also look at the whole reentry model and look at what makes people succeed and what makes people fail,” he says.
Murphy says problems with drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, employment and housing are the main factors leading to an unsuccessful transition.
He notes several projects the ACC has in the works: starting up a web portal called the Good Grid to connect former inmates with job opportunities, rehabilitative services and transitional housing. Also, establishing new reentry centers and providing a volunteer mentor for every inmate who leaves prison.
Murphy says he’d like to see more businesses hire and more apartments lease to ex-offenders.
“We’ve got to convince the state of Arkansas it’s not just the state’s responsibility to ensure these individuals succeed when they’re out in the community,” he says.
Among the ACC’s new plans, Murphy says that providing a mentor to every inmate may be the most challenging of all.
“A lot of these guys are out of touch with society. They’ve been in prison 10, 15, 20 years or 4 years, 5 years at that. And yet, the world has changed from what they knew it,"says Scott McLean, executive director of Pathway to Freedom, where mentors are a staple.
“[As a mentor,] you’re helping them as a guide. You’re helping them slowly reacclimate back into to society and not create anymore crime victims.”
Pathway to Freedom operates out of the Wrightsville/Hawkins Unit, just south of Little Rock. 200 male inmates reside in barracks while participating in the 18-month pre-release stage of the program. They attend a full slate of classes, focusing on employable skills and personal development. The program also has a year-long post release phase for participants, where mentors help with finding employment and provide a support network.
The privately-funded non-profit, describes itself as “a Christ-centered holistic service program,” though, a qualifying inmate of any religious or non-religious persuasion is welcome to participate. Among the 73 who've paroled out of Pathway to Freedom, McLean says there has been a 13 percent recidivism rate, which is significantly lower than the state’s latest overall figure of about 43 percent.
For Timothy King, who goes by “Ti”, the social, personal and professional skills he's gained through Pathway to Freedom has led to a better grasp on life inside prison as well as a plan for life outside.
“Now that the program has given me these tools, I don’t have fear those unknowns anymore because I know I can make rationale, good decisions,” he says. “And even if I’m unsure about something, I’ll have mentors and I’ll have Scott that I can contact and say, ‘what is your opinion on this?”
King, who says it has taken himself “years and years” to forgive himself of what he did, works in the program’s administrative offices. He leads religious services and mediates conflicts between inmates in regular community meetings. He says he looks forward to reconnecting with his family and working with his mentor upon release. He also hopes to start a graphic design business.
Arkansas Community Correction hopes it can emulate the support structure that groups like Pathway to Freedom provide offenders like King, both in the pre-release and post-release phase of their lives. Sharp says ACC hopes to accomplish this through its planned reentry centers and mentors.
“Helping get that driver’s license back, helping get that Social Security card again, helping with those job applications. And if it’s additional drug and alcohol treatment, making sure they get into those programs that can help them be successful, to have an option anyway.”