Mathis inspires inmates

PELHAM -- Former Albany city commissioner Henry Mathis is heading back to jail ... only this time he's an invited guest.

Mathis was to meet this morning with "model inmates" at Autry State Prison here to talk with them about the decisions they face when they leave the state's criminal justice system. The visit, arranged through an assistant warden at the prison, will allow Mathis an opportunity to put into practice a plan he has devised that will help others who are where he has been.

In March of 2008, Mathis was released from the Federal Correctional Institute in Jesup after serving three years on extortion charges.

"I plan to tell these inmates stories about people who faced the same fate that they do," Mathis said Wednesday. "Some of the people successfully moved on, and some didn't. At the end of the day, their lives came down to an individual choice they had to make.

"These folks (at Autry) can choose to take advantage of their second chance and do something meaningful with their lives, or they can fall right back into the pattern that brought them to prison in the first place."

Mathis, who has taken advantage of his second chance to start a successful career as a salesperson at Brooks Furniture in Albany, has certainly distanced himself from the circumstances that led to his own incarceration. In addition to his sales job, he's an assistant pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church and he's one semester away from earning his master of public administration degree at Albany State University.

Mathis' degree concentration is in criminal justice, and he has started planning a release intervention counseling program that will help inmates adapt to life outside the criminal justice system once they are released.

"There are opportunities out there, tax credits available to businesses willing to give former inmates a second chance," Mathis said. "And often these people are some of the best workers because they're grateful for that chance. Literature shows, though, that a large percentage of people who come out with a support system in place are much less likely to return to prison. That's where my program can help.

"Recidivism is a huge problem in our state, and that's why I think this program can have a huge impact. Plus, I can talk the talk with the former inmates because I've walked the walk. I've been a mile in their shoes."

Mathis said he had talked with local and national officials about securing funding for his program but so far has secured none. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, is one of the leaders Mathis has talked with.

"I do recall having an informal conversation with Mr. Mathis about this issue, but unfortunately I do not recall having received a formal request from him (for funding) through our Web site," Bishop said during a phone conversation from his Washington office Wednesday. "Each year we receive a number of requests for funding opportunities, and there is a sorting out process. But I don't recall any submission made by Mr. Mathis.

"I remember discussing with Mr. Mathis legislation referred to as the 'Second Chance Act' that has since become law. That law provides assistance to former offenders to help them with their transition back into society. Certainly with a large segment of the community having connections with the criminal justice system, any program designed to help stop recidivism -- which is rampant -- would be a plus."

Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said an intervention counseling program like the one Mathis is planning would serve as a useful tool in addressing one part of the three-pronged beast that is the criminal justice system.

"The justice system has three areas of concern: prevention, in which we reach out beforehand; intervention, in which we make good solid cases that stand up in court; and re-entry or restoration, because not everyone in the criminal justice system stays in prison forever," Edwards said. "Programs like the one Mr. Mathis is developing, which addresses re-entry, are vital because the system has to make accommodations that give people coming back into society hope.

"I'm certainly an advocate of programs that make our community safer, especially those developed as part of faith-based organizations. But the reality is that right now there are no funds to help support such programs. If funding is available, I support grants that help us deal with these issues. Sadly, that's not the case right now."

Albany City Manager Alfred Lott said Mathis has not approached him about funding for his intervention program, but he said the city's primary concern at this time is enforcement.

"Realistically, that is not a charter function," Lott said. "And while public safety is, the community has asked that we use our resources to put more police officers on the streets to enforce our laws. That's where we're concentrating our funds at this time.

"I do want to say, though, that I think his cause is a noble one and I wish him well with it."

Mathis said the city's approach doesn't take into consideration crime prevention or post-prison intervention.

"The bottom line is, we're allowing our local government to pour all its resources into public safety without considering prevention programs," he said. "We continue to deal with the symptoms of crime, but at some point we have to address the causes."