LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Around 400 parole officers have the challenge of overseeing more than 50,000 former inmates in the state of Arkansas. Meanwhile, parolees getting out of prison face their own set of challenges when it comes to reentering society and staying out of jail.
"It's nerve-wracking," said Joe Bethune, who gets out of the Omega Technical Violator Center in Malvern in less than a week. "Nerve-wracking not knowing, not knowing how it's going to go this time."
This was Bethune's fifth time through the prison system and he said going home gets harder every time.
William Medley spoke to THV 11 three days before his release.
"It's so easy to go out there, like I said, and go do the wrong things," said Medley describing his release. "Nervous, expectations... I'm joyed, overwhelmed. I'm ready to get out there and be the father that I have not been."
Medley and Bethune are just two of the hundreds of parolees that reenter society in Arkansas every year. They believe going home can be harder than staying in prison.
"It gets more overwhelming every time," added Bethune. "It's like, really? It's tough. It gets worse every time."
"Reentering society after committing a crime is not easy and for a lot of good reasons," said Shane Willbanks, Executive Director of Life After Prison Ministries.
Willbanks knows the challenges of re-entry first-hand. A convicted felon himself, Willbanks now runs the statewide program designed to help parolees succeed in society after their release.
"Without the opportunity to succeed, a lot of times in their mind they don't have a choice but to fall back into the old lifestyle," said Willbanks. "So that's what we're trying to provide before they even leave prison, we want them to know there is an opportunity out there for you, and we found it, and here's the phone number to get it."
Willbanks and his father, Mike, go into prisons like Omega Center teaching felons how to stay out of jail. They also go into the communities where those felons go home to and help set up a support network for them on the outside.
"We're kind of a liaison between the parolee and the society that's going to receive them and we prepare both sides for that person's reentry," added Willbanks. "We sit down with them and find out what their fears are, what their needs are. Do they need a job? Do they need a church? Do they need a mentor? Do they need transportation or clothing or food? We find out what their practical needs are. And then the other part of our job is to then go into the community and prepare the community for that person who is coming home."
"I've spent 26 years incarcerated since I was 11 years old," said Terry Williams a parolee who is now one of Life After Prison Ministry's success stories. "You do that much time in prison, and you get out, you don't know what to do."
Incarcerated for most of his adult life, Williams now volunteers with the group, helping other parolees with the challenges of re-entry.
"A lot of us struggle to find jobs and hope to fill that void that we're going to do better," added Williams. "But a lot of us don't know what to do when we get that first check, so we relapse, we do crimes, and I'm beginning to see that cycle."
Williams credited Willbanks and Life After Prison Ministries for helping turn his life around. Back at Omega Center Warden Kathy Brown ssaidays, so far, Life After Prison Ministries has been a huge success.
"So many of these guys go back to the same situation, the drugs, the criminal lifestyle," said Brown. "These are people they can actually pick up the phone and call, and they have resources to help them and the fact that they're volunteers doing this, I mean it's pretty awesome."
Meanwhile, for those about to walk out the door and head back into the community, the program gives them the one thing they haven't had in a long time.
"It's a lot of hope, it is," said Bethune. "Having resources, positive resources when I go out there and not having to look for them, not having to worry about not being able to find them. Going out there I feel like I'm already ahead because I have something to go out there and give me a chance."
"It gives you hope because, like I said, I had always gotten out and done the wrong thing," added Williams. "Knowing somebody actually cares to put their time and everything into helping me, that's a good feeling. Maybe this time I might make it because I'm going to get his number and I'm going to call him."
Every person THV 11 spoke with for this story named finding employment as the number one problem parolees face after they get out of prison. Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders in Little Rock works directly with companies that hire people with felony backgrounds and puts them in touch with parolees looking for work. They said they help more than 200 felons each week in finding everything from employment to housing to food and clothing, all for free.