American RadioWorksDocumentaries Hard Time: Life After Prison
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Faith-based Support
   Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson gave up a successful career to run a Christian ministry for ex-offenders. Photo: Steve Schapiro / American RadioWorks

Eddie has gotten support from one such faith-based group. One afternoon he and several other ex-inmates sit in an upstairs meeting room on East Main in Durham, listening to a local businessman, Ellis McCoy, lead them through the first chapter of the Book of James.

"Verse four: 'But let patience have her perfect work,'" McCoy reads. He looks up at the men around the table. "Patience will bring maturity. Going through a trial brings maturity." The men have each found their way to New Beginnings Outreach, a fledgling ministry aimed at helping ex-offenders. Phillip Jackson is the ministry's founder and Executive Director. He gave up a well-paying management job to start New Beginnings. Jackson grew up in a rough town near Philadelphia. He carried a gun by age twelve, he says. He did 18 months in a military prison before turning to Christianity. He says God called him to help ex-convicts, even though it's not always easy or rewarding.

"We've had some success stories, but we've had some who have come out and had us pay their bills while they were going to ask other people to pay the same bill, and just really tried to take advantage of us," Jackson says. "So I do understand the apprehension, but we've got to take a chance. We can't give up. Because there is that one that we may reach and turn their lives around. That's what drives us."

Jackson wants to teach ex-inmates about Jesus - and give them what they most need in the practical world: paying work. He started a little painting and cleaning company, and he tries to scare up jobs for his crews of ex-cons. In a weak economy, he's finding only spotty work for them. Jackson admits he's also having trouble raising money from local church leaders for his ex-offender program.

"I've talked with many pastors and I have heard pastors say, 'That person got themselves into that position and they need to get themselves out of it.' I just don't know where that comes from scripturally," Jackson says.

As the New Beginnings Bible study continues, Ellis McCoy prompts Eddie to read the next verse of James 1: "Verse five," Eddie says. "'If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault ... ."

But a couple of months later, Eddie still hasn't found a real job. In a run-down house in north Durham, he spreads off-white paint on the interior walls, trying to make the place fit for renting. It's another one-day paycheck, this time for Eddie's landlord. The money will help Eddie squeak by on his bills for another month.

"I'm trying to build a business," he says, carefully stroking paint onto a French window frame. "A little painting company. And if God blesses me that way, I'm going to be the exact opposite of society. On my applications it will say, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' And if they put 'no' I'll tell them I can't hire them."

Eddie sometimes talks bitterly about society's treatment of ex-prisoners like himself. Then in the next breath he'll say he brought it all on himself - he's to blame. Either way, he argues that the overwhelming hurdles ex-convicts face aren't good for anybody.

"If I could take back the things I did, I would. But I can't," Eddie says. "There's nothing I can do. But I'll never do them again. So isn't that enough? Five years of my life have been thrown away. I threw them away. But is society going to want to throw away another five just for good measure?"

In early 2003, 13 months after his release from prison, Eddie finally got a pair of part-time jobs - at a gas station and a pet-care shop. The service station didn't ask about a criminal record. The application at the pet-care shop asked if he'd had a felony conviction within the past five years. Eddie was locked up in 1996, so he could truthfully answer no.

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