Nearly a decade ago, Tony Kitchens and his wife decided they needed to move into a better neighborhood.
“We were trying to move to the prosperous side of town because we were living in the hood at the time,” Kitchens said. “We met all the necessary requirements — we had great employment, great references, we had the deposit.”
But Kitchens also had something else: a prison record.
“Upon completion of the background check — at that time, I had been out of prison for 25 years — we were told that I could not have a criminal record for 100 years in order to rent an apartment in that particular area,” Kitchens said. “So much for the whole attitude of changing your playground, right? We say, ‘Change your playground,’ but see, we have to have the opportunity to be able to change your playground.”
Kitchens, who works as the field director for Prison Fellowship, a ministry that “seeks to restore those affected by crime and incarceration by introducing prisoners, victims and their families to a new hope available through Jesus Christ,” served as keynote speaker for the Greater Gwinnett Reentry Alliance’s fourth annual conference, which was held at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Friday.
The Alliance, a nonprofit, was founded several years ago with the intent of reducing the recidivism rate in Gwinnett and helping former inmates re-enter and reintegrate — something Kitchens stressed is different than re-entry — into society, which is often a difficult task.
“The technicals of collateral consequences run deep,” Kitchens said. “Whether you receive a prison sentence of 50 years, five years or five months, you still get a life sentence — a life sentence of being marginalized, living under the radar, (being) isolated, filled with shame, filled with guilt. This is why re-entry is different than reintegration.”
A person can achieve a successful re-entry by “getting out of prison and living under a bridge,” Kitchens said, because “re-entry has nothing to do with quality of life and the freedom to live without the sanctions and disqualifications that place burdens on a person” who has already served time and paid for their crime.
But reintegration is more difficult because it requires community cooperation, he said.
“In the late ’70s, at the time when I was incarcerated, there was very little attention given to re-entry or reintegration processes,” Kitchens said. “Today, we have many programs and community resources that address change, but very few that address the transitional journey from re-entry to reintegration. That is because reintegration is a journey that involves community collaboration.”
Part of that community collaboration, Kitchens said, is doing exactly what he did Friday night: sharing success stories.
“A person cannot be what they cannot see; they have to be able to see that (reintegration) is possible,” he said. “Come Jan. 7, 2019, I will have been out of prison for 34 years. I confess, I don’t know a whole lot about today’s prison culture, but here’s what I do know: It is not just enough to change. One must be able to see that reintegration is possible because recidivism does not occur in prison, but in the community.
“I stand before you, not as an ex-offender, not as a returning citizen, not as a formerly incarcerated individual, but a man of conviction because I now understand that my prison experience is part of my whole human experience. Your experiences have value, and (by) bringing your life experiences to bear, (you) can shift paradigms.”