Ex-cons try to build futures

Forum addresses life after prison

Staff WriterMay 1, 2005 

Garry Battle's biggest adjustment when he was released from prison in 2003 was not finding a job or learning to surf the Internet. It was seeing his friends and family members hooked on crack cocaine.

"Crack wasn't like that when I left," said Battle, who was convicted of second-degree murder and served 17 years. "Young women prostituting themselves. That hurt me most, seeing my family members on drugs."

Battle was a featured speaker at an ex-offenders' conference Saturday at the Building Together Ministries Neighborhood Center and Hope Charter School at 1119 N. Blount Street. About 100 ex-cons, community support groups and activists attended the forum aimed at building better futures.

The all-day event was billed as the first conference held for and by ex-offenders. It was the brainchild of Marsha Gibbs of Step Out Ministries in Raleigh and Dennis Gaddy, an inmate at the Wake Correctional Center. Gaddy helped to start the Community Success Initiative which seeks to develop leadership and resources in low-income areas while on work release with the Good Work nonprofit in Durham.

Gaddy has worked at the non-profit for the past three years as a leadership trainer and personnel coach.

"You always hear about these conferences being held by people who haven't been to prison trying to give solutions," said Gaddy, who is also working toward ex-offender status. The warm, easygoing organizer will be released from prison June 20 after serving a five-year prison sentence for what he described as "unwise financial choices."

Gaddy said while serving time, he, Battle and others often talked about hosting a conference like Saturday's. "Who better than us would know the solutions?" Gaddy asked.

Gaddy pointed to Battle, who now supervises a Raleigh scaffolding yard, as an example. Battle, who spoke at the conference, is a homeowner with a two-car garage and plans to marry in September.

Another speaker, evangelist Gloria McCauley of Burlington, served about three years in prison after being convicted of embezzlement and possession of cocaine. She founded and directs God Did It Recovery House For Women. She operates two transitional houses for women with a third one set to open in Manteo for women and children.

Ex-offenders trying to readjust to society are often hit with harsh realities when they return to the streets. They may have difficulty finding a job or have unrealistic expectations. Many feel thrown away or forgotten.

"Persistence, but first of all the Lord," McCauley answered when asked how she made the transition from prison into the mainstream.

"Why not share some success stories?" Gaddy asked. "You always hear about the negative stuff, but we had some stories here today that would blow peoples' minds."

Those at Saturday's conference all said family, church and community support are necessary for recently released ex-cons.

Topics at the conference included the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison.

"You remember those campaigns to stop teenage pregnancy years ago?" Battle asked. "The kids I saw coming to prison were the products of those pregnancies. Now the mom is 36 and the kid is 16. Mom is at [Raleigh nightclubs]. What does the kid do? He gets into trouble."

For the Rev. D. L. McCoy, the need to heed the words of the old African parable, "It takes a village to raise a child," has never been greater.

"I'm tired of seeing my people getting locked up," said McCoy, pastor of the Pleasant Hill United Church of Christ off Lake Wheeler Road. "[Prison] is modern day slavery."

McCoy said every sector of the black community, particularly the church, needs to engage the issue. "They are building mega- churches in our neighborhood and they aren't doing nothing," said McCoy, who lives off Sanderford Road.

Staff writer Thomasi McDonald can be reached at 829-4533 or tmcdonal@newsobserver.com.

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