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Turning Leaf teaches former prisoners to learn from past mistakes

A Place of Peace

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In the shadow of the razorwire fences and bleak facade of the Al Cannon Detention Center sits the small, nondescript building that houses the Turning Leaf Project. Inside, two classrooms are lined with handwritten lists that encapsulate the lessons learned by the former convicts who participate in the reintroduction program. Identifying a social support network, dealing with anger, managing stress — these are the teachings that Kadeem Gaddist, aspiring musician and Turning Leaf student, calls "secrets" kept from him and his fellow classmates. Whatever their environment, they were never exposed to the lessons that would keep them out of prison. Gaddist describes it as going through life without knowing how to tie your shoes. But now he's found a place of peace.

Rapping and recording for more than five years, Gaddist had to put his music career on hold as he served a prison sentence for drug charges. Last October, after his release, he joined the Turning Leaf program. Looking back, he admits he didn't have much hope in the program when he first started. Newcomers to Turning Leaf participate in classes Monday through Friday for three hours a day. Model students can earn up to $150 a week for participating. As they progress through the program, they are set up with part-time jobs on nights and weekends as they work toward full-time employment.

Hanging on the wall in one of the classrooms is an example of the work that is done at Turning Leaf. Written at the top of a large sheet of paper is a description of a situation faced by many people after they are released from prison.

"Been trying to find a job for three months, only offer is a low-paying fast-food job" is scrawled at the top of the page, followed by a list of "old thoughts" that one might consider. These include selling drugs out of the drive-thru window, prostituting yourself, or just giving up altogether. Just below this list are written the consequences of these actions — losing your job, losing your family, and jail. Amy Barch, director of Turning Leaf, says the point of this exercise is to address the negative thinking that has plagued students in the past so that students can discuss how to make better decisions in the future.

"It's about you setting your own goals and us giving you the tools to be your best self," says Barch. "We can't change the external. We can only change the internal. We discuss how to deal with challenging situations, working toward a situation where you can improve your life, and connecting your goals with choices. Your actions don't matter if you don't have goals."

The Turning Leaf program was a point of courtroom conversation during the sentencing of Joey Meek. The attorney for the friend of Dylann Roof who withheld information regarding the shooting at Emanuel AME Church called on a federal judge to consider Turning Leaf. After more than a year of counseling, attorney Deborah Barbier and Meek's psychiatrist said he had secured a full-time job and was shedding the negative characteristics that landed him in trouble all his life. He now faces a 27-month stint in federal prison.

It takes four to six months to complete the program at Turning Leaf, which includes weekly one-on-one sessions with a case worker. Barch is one of three staff members — with one coworker who handles case management and another who arranges employment opportunities and secures partnerships with businesses. Every two to three months, Barch spends hours in the detention center, handing out business cards to inmates. With half of Turning Leaf's funding coming from local municipalities and the rest gathered from donations, Barch hopes that state and federal agencies will recognize the success of the program and offer financial support. While it costs around $7,000 to put a student through the Turning Leaf program, Barch says that's not much when compared to the $20,000 spent to house one inmate for a year in a state prison. And while recidivism rates have been on the decline, more than one quarter of South Carolina inmates return to prison within three years of their release.

"The program is not in its last iteration. We initially started out as an alternative sentencing program. We changed to treat those who are re-entering the world after prison," says Barch. "We'll never stop growing and changing. I hope at some point we can be seen as a model for other agencies."

Some of Barch's ideas for the future of Turning Leaf include establishing more in-house job training programs and job opportunities. She believes that popular opinion is swinging toward supporting more rehabilitation efforts and recognizing the disparities that exist between communities in America.

"There's a gap in what we're doing to prepare people for adulthood in impoverished neighborhoods," says Barch. "Students call what they learn here secrets. They say, 'These are the secrets that people have never told us before.' We're failing people."

After finishing up his day at work, Gaddist finds himself back in the Turning Leaf office. He's not here for classes. No, he's back to work on his album. Gaddist was given the chance to set up a recording studio in a small, spare office. Speakers line the wall and a microphone stands in the corner behind a stack of cabinets.

"Music makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he says.

After his time in the program, Gaddist has learned to identify any risky thoughts that may arise and consider the consequences of going back to hustling.

"I've got a bit of foundation to me now. I don't put myself in risky situations," he says.

Gaddist currently finds himself in the makeshift studio once a week. Focused on his music, he loses himself for hours. Once he completes his community service, Gaddist expects to spend more time recording and performing. One of his finished tracks rings out through the office, the sample of a female vocalist rising above the beat. He listens to the song about once a day for motivation. Gaddist was in an open dorm in prison and recently moved back in with his mother, so having a quiet place to focus on his music comes as a blessing.

"This is a place where I can actually come and be myself," he says of his Turning Leaf studio. "I want anyone listening to my music to understand the experiences that I've been through and how I felt when I was going through it. I want people to hear my story. I just want to connect."

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