Constitution Week, a national observance to commemorate the adoption of the United States Constitution, kicked off at Clayton State on Sept. 15 with a special screening of the documentary film “Released,” which traces the challenges ex-offenders face when re-entering society. The showing was preceded by the University's second annual ex-offender job fair and concluded with a 30-minute Q&A discussion with some of the men and women featured in the film.
"Released" was presented by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia. Filmed in 2013, the documentary recounts the experiences of several Georgian ex-offenders as they transition back into society and search for suitable jobs to sustain themselves and their families.
Due to their criminal background, they find it very difficult to find employers that feel comfortable hiring them as well as find average wage employment.
Their challenges in obtaining work comes as no surprise since the film states that 60% of employers in Georgia are unwilling to hire ex-inmates.
The documentary also states that unemployment increases the occurrence of recidivism and that 77% of state prisoners were re-arrested within 5 years of being released.
The logic behind the correlation between unemployment and recidivism is that if ex-offenders are unable to legally obtain income to provide for themselves and/or their families, there is a greater chance that they will resort to illegal ways of making money.
"Employment is, by far, the number one thing that will reduce recidivism," said Danielle Sweat Whyly, community outreach specialist for the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia.
The aim of the film screening was to inform the audience of the link between unemployment and recidivism, address the tension between ex-offenders and employers, and offer solutions and hope to ex-offenders struggling to find employment.
The discussion panel consisted of Eric Girault, a reformed ex-offender and Clayton State alumnus; Keith Strickland, a reformed ex-offender and founder of Making the Transition; Doug Ammar, Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Department and Toni Watkins, Community Coordinator for Clayton County.
The panelists answered questions from the audience regarding ex-offender housing, employment and recidivism.
The panelists emphasized the importance of audience members getting involved in their community to help address these concerns with ex-offenders.
"If you know someone who is willing to offer housing [to ex-offenders], let us know," said Toni Watkins. "If you know someone who is willing to offer employment [to ex-offenders], let us know."
Keith Strickland addressed the importance of providing mentorship programs to reduce recidivism. He founded Making the Transition to offer mentorship, life skills education and job assistance to ex-offenders and youth in Atlanta.
"Morality and character is a large part," he stated. "If we don't show them something different from what they see every day, they will go down the wrong paths."
Eric Girault graduated from Clayton State with his bachelor's in May 2016 and has plans to attend law school. He encouraged ex-offenders to keep working at the things they want and to keep striving to better themselves.
"Prison doesn't mean the end of you. It's not the final chapter," he said. "No matter what negative experience you are going through, don't let it define you."
The screening was attended by Georgia Representative Valencia Stovall who kicked off Clayton State's celebration of Constitution Week on Thursday, Sept. 14 by speaking with the University's students about the importance of education and community involvement.
Stovall believes that changes in the Georgia school system, standardized test designs and implementing non-traditional forms of education will help to improve these statistics but challenged the students to focus particularly on motivating those younger than them to finish school.
"Some of our communities don't have hope," she said. "You all are our hope. They need you. They need to see the experiences you have and all you can share."
Stovall highlighted how valuable it was for community members to come together, identify the problems they face, voice their concerns to the government and work together to find solutions to the problems.
"The government doesn't have all the answers," she said. "That's when the community comes together and tells the government what they need for their community. Voice your opinion about what you would like to see in your community."
More information about the film Released, future screenings and how community members can get involved with recidivism reduction programs can be found at www.releasedthemovie.com.