CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - A new jail diversion program in Horry County is working to close the revolving door for repeat offenders.
Program Director Gareth Beshears says they have been working to implement the program for more than six years, but they are not looking to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they are using what he calls a proven program out of Kentucky.
"It's unbelievable. I'm just amazed," Beshears said. "I'm amazed that you can take people that have a sixth to eighth grade functional reading and writing level and in less than two months I'm looking at their work and it's like amazing [to see] the difference."
To enter the program, male inmates are required to be non-violent, non-sexual offenders. The County Solicitor determines eligibility on a case by case basis.
The offenders enter the program at J. Reuben Long with the opportunity for a decreased sentence upon completion of the program, which slowly transitions the offenders into society through a transitional living program.
Beshears says the program is no get-out-of-jail-free card, however, noting the eight to nine hours a day of instruction, additional assignments and the continued oversight even after they leave the jail.
"As far as it's related to my old life when I was on the street, it's money over everything," Kenyada Alford reflected, looking down at his tattoo-covered arm. "There's a tattoo of money standing up with his foot over a woman."
Alford is one of the first to begin the program at J. Reuben. He says while the stain of his past decisions will always be a part of him, he is working to draw a new future for himself.
"You'll see things totally different as far as when you start working through the program and they show you different things about yourself," Alford said. "Because that's the main problem: ourself and our actions."
During daily classes, mentors work to break through old thought patterns.
"Inmates come in with a set of impaired and distorted beliefs," Beshears explained. "The core of this program tries to dismantle that belief system and restructure a healthy belief system."
Three-time convicted felon Lee Carpenter turned his life around after completing a similar program and says he now has an entirely different outlook on life.
"I can follow my dreams and goals today. I can look the world in the eyes today. I'm not bigger than nobody, I'm not better than nobody, I'm not less than nobody," Carpenter said. "That's probably the most powerful thing that I got out of this process is that I am a part of society. I am a child of God. I am loved."
Carpenter says he became willing to do the program after the death of his brother. Now he is hoping to pass on what he has learned.
"The strongest thing I got from the program was that the people [carrying the message] liked me," Carpenter said. "That's that shot of hope."
He says it is often hard for people in that lifestyle to feel hope because they feel so separated from society.
"People with the criminal mentalities, we have a natural intuition to buck authority," he explained.
That is one of the reasons Carpenter feels this program is so successful: it works to hold each member of the community accountable to each other.
"To have our peers address us is real powerful because we listen to our peers more than we do authority," Carpenter said. "That's why we end up in criminal institutions."
"It's like family in here," Alford added. "We speak on personal things, anything that bothers us. We get along good."
Side by side the group is working to close the revolving door of incarceration and return to society transformed.
"I'm definitely ready to get back home to my family and my community," Alford said. "Show them that I can change and I do want to be better."
Right now there are 11 men in the program with space to add 13 more. Beshears says they have applied for a number of other grants, but are currently only funded through December 2010.