Parolees who are selected to go to Hay House have a better chance of not re-offending than most other parolees in other programs in Tennessee. (Credit: David Wood)
Ryan Elliott spent years in and out of prisons and jails for drug-related offenses. Today, he has a full-time job, a place to live and a chance every Thursday night to minister to the men staying at the John R. Hay House — the very place that gave him the tools to reenter society as a responsible, productive citizen.
Elliott is one of several former Hay House clients featured in a soon-to-be-released documentary that looks at the high cost of recidivism and its effect on communities in Northeast Tennessee.
“Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection” explores the history of recidivism, as well as what writer and director Stephen Newton calls the culture of rejection and why it may unwittingly contribute to the high rate of recidivism in Tennessee, where half of offenders return to prison within three years.
Produced by Jane Hillhouse, of Hillhouse Video Works in Kingsport, “Outcasts” will premiere in early 2014 on Knoxville’s East Tennessee PBS station. An initial screening of the film will be held at Northeast State Community College’s Wellmont Regional Center for the Performing Arts. Dates for the screening and premiere haven’t been announced.
Elliott, 41, was 19 the first time he was jailed. When he was placed at Hay House, the only non-profit residential treatment center in Northeast Tennessee, he found people there willing to listen, and willing to provide his essentials — a place to sleep, three meals a day, clothing and a job placement.
“When I came out of prison, I didn’t have anywhere to go. It was a structure and a foundation for me,” Elliott said. “With Hay House being there when I got out of prison, I knew I wasn’t going to go back [to prison]. I didn’t have to worry about going back at all. It was just what I needed until I got my apartment. I knew that’s what they were there for. I knew they wanted to help me.”
Hay House is a residential treatment program founded in 1981 to help criminal offenders reenter society as responsible and productive citizens. Hay House costs taxpayers less than one-tenth that of imprisonment and has been recognized as a model program by the Tennessee State Department of Corrections.
National recidivism rates indicate that more than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years. In Tennessee, that rate is 50 percent. Hay House, in contrast, has a more than 90 percent success rate.
Stephen Newton had never given much though to what it’s like to be incarcerated, then released from prison with minimal belongings. Then he heard the story of an inmate who had been arrested in his underwear. When he was released from the Sullivan County Jail, he exchanged his prison stripes and dressed in his only belongings, that same pair of underwear.
“I tried to imagine myself standing in front of the jail in my underwear, a marked felon with no place to go, no money, no family to greet me, and ultimately no hope. Like so many others, I was unaware of what it must feel like to be an outcast,” Newton wrote in his blog, found at www.cultureofrejection.org
“I tried to put myself in his shoes,” he said. “You’re still marked as an outcast, a felon for life. You’re still expected to pay a financial retribution back to the community,” he said.
Newton began researching the issue and uncovering alarming facts. He couldn’t shake the image of the man standing in his underwear and began to envision that as the opening scene of a movie.
What he discovered was this: The United States has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world, with China and Russia coming in second and third. One out of 107 Americans is behind bars, and one out of every 34 is under some kind of correctional supervision, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report “Correctional Populations in the United States” (November 2012 Bulletin).
Newton initially wanted “Outcasts” to focus solely on Hay House, but has since expanded the project to feature other regional programs, including SteppenStone Youth Treatment Services, Frontier Health, Families Free and First Baptist Church’s Celebrate Recovery. Tennessee programs outside this region include Judge Norman’s Davidson County Drug Court. National organizations interviewed include the Justice Policy Institute and Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“It’s been a pretty amazing story, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” Newton said. “What is happening is legislators have realized that mass incarceration is not sustainable over the long haul, and we have to find ways to help them become productive citizens.”
“The state is spending so much money on incarceration and it’s not really as effective,” Hillhouse added. “[At Hay House], you’re giving people the tools to succeed and help them realize they need to take responsibility for themselves and their families.”
Newton said the goal of the documentary is to raise public awareness about Hay House. He said he’s been surprised at how few people know about the work going on at Hay House.
“The work here is virtually unrecognizable. We prefer to not look at the things that are unsavory,” he said. “It’s not just poor whites or blacks or Hispanics caught up in this cycle of recidivism in prison. It can touch anyone.”
Hay House Director Dr. Chuck Walsh didn’t hesitate to participate in the documentary. “We’ve been wanting to get the word out for a long time. This gives them a place to live, get treatment they need, medicine, get a job, pay their fines. It gives them at least a fighting chance.”
Walsh said Hay House chooses whom it accepts into its program. He looks at the crime — taking mostly alcohol and drug offenses — and for offenders who are unlikely to return to prison.
“Our first goal is to protect the community, so we’re very selective on who we take,” he said.
There are some treatment programs in prison, Walsh said. The problems start when the offender is released from prison.
“The problem is when they walk out that door ... when they come out they’re worse than when they came,” he said. “They learn better ways to con, to commit crimes. They learn new ways to survive. There are people who come through this program who have so many skills, if they’re just worked with.”
Walsh said Hay House clients are treated with respect.
“When they come in that door, we treat them like real people,” Walsh said. “You have to be willing to become involved with them to get them to change. Changing lives is about relationships.”
Hay House staff evaluates their health needs, their mental health needs, and their chances of recidivism.
“Then we talk to them, something that doesn’t always happen with other agencies. We treat them with respect,” Walsh said. “If they start straying off the track, we’re there to put them back on. They can adjust with time to be moved back into the community.”
In the past five years, more than 1,700 individuals have entered the Hay House program. Of these, more than 500 earned GEDs, 899 completed alcohol and drug education and aftercare programs, and 579 completed Moral Reconation Therapy, which is behavioral modification and education. Additionally, participants earned $1,333,457; paid $516,175 in child support, criminal injury fees, restitution, fines and court costs; and worked more than 124,000 community service hours worth an estimated $638,000.
“Hay House is doing 90 percent-plus success rate, so why don’t we have a Hay House in every community? It’s a complex issue ... and people don’t really understand the issue,” Newton said.
“People do not want to admit this is an issue,” Walsh said. “Out of sight, out of mind. They want to think everything is sweet and pretty and it isn’t.”
Ryan Elliott spends every Thursday night at Hay House, talking one-on-one with the men who want to talk to him.
“It’s a real privilege, to be in as bad a shape as I was, to come back and help anybody,” he said. “I wouldn’t get to do that anywhere. I want them to know that, number one, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am now if I wouldn’t have got saved, and I know that Hay House is a place that is very helpful,” Elliott said. “It does help people, and it is a good place and people just don’t realize it, the breaks they could get.”
Elliott said the Hay House clients listen to his story.
“I listened, but it took a long time. I was 37 years old before I listened,” he said. “Its an honor and a privilege to be able to do that for them. I thank them for it.”
Working with Newton and Hillhouse on “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection” are composer Paul Vanderbeck and motion graphics designer Sergei Prokhnevskiy.
After its PBS premiere, the station will distribute the film to other PBS stations nationwide. The film will also be shown to local middle school students to increase awareness about the consequences of drug use.
For more information about “Outcasts” and to view an excerpt from the film, visit www.cultureofrejection.org