Former inmates lead support groups for jail

  • George Ballentine, left, and Larry Thomas, both former inmates, run support groups for people who have been incarcerated and provide one-on-one mentorship. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The Franklin County House of Correction. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Larry Thomas STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • George Ballentine STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2019 10:35:39 PM

GREENFIELD — After spending 18 years in and out of jail, Larry Thomas returned to the Franklin County House of Correction a couple of months ago.

This time, though, Thomas wasn’t an inmate. He was there to start a support group for incarcerated men awaiting their release.

“I know what it looks like to get released from jail,” Thomas said. “So we’re able to support others with the same type of stuff.”

In Thomas’ view, he can offer authentic advice to inmates as he knows how it feels to leave jail without much support. When he was released in the past, he did not have a home or a job, and often returned to “drugs and gangs,” — and would then go back to prison again.

Thomas was last released four years ago after a stint at Connecticut state prison. This became Thomas’ final sentence, he said, attributing the turning point to finding housing at the Beacon House and receiving peer support from The RECOVER Project. He hasn’t looked back, now living in a permanent apartment and working full-time at The RECOVER Project.

Thomas’ support group, overseen by the Western Mass. Recovery Learning Community, runs Wednesdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the jail.

Another group, facilitated by former inmate George Ballentine, is held outside the jail at the community center on Chapman Street in Greenfield. This group is attended by those who have already been released as well as current inmates who are transported from the jail to the center.

“Sometimes we talk about really hard life experiences, sometimes we just joke around and have fun,” Ballentine said. “It’s really nice to be in an environment where you know the individual across from you has experienced some of that same turmoil that you have.”

A women’s support group also started at the jail about a month ago, run by a Recovery Learning Community employee who has not been incarcerated. The nonprofit is now recruiting a former inmate to run the group.

The groups are the first to be specifically facilitated by former inmates. The Recovery Learning Community has run groups inside and outside the jail, though they haven’t been run by those who have been incarcerated.

Thomas and Ballentine’s services do not end with their support groups. When inmates are released, the two are paid to continue providing them with support. They assist in any way former inmates need, meeting with them one-on-one and connecting them with community services.

Thomas said his group is unstructured and free-flowing. During the hour-and-a-half period, he facilitates a conversation and brings resources like information on housing and employment.

“What I try to do is build relationships with people,” Thomas said. “I say, ‘How’s your day going?’ we kick it, they tell me different things.”

In particular, he focuses on talking about what it is like to leave jail, rather than what led them there.

“I try to redirect, because talking about the stuff that got them in jail is going to keep them in jail,” Thomas said. “I try to redirect the conversation about different things, positive things.”

The groups have been given $150,000 in funding for three years, as part of a larger federal grant the jail received, said Ed Hayes, assistant superintendent at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. The jail introduced this program to provide inmates with a place to be themselves, he said.

“This is a free space where they can speak,” Hayes said, “and be honest with each other, and support each other, without the power dynamic.”

Reach Grace Bird at
gbird@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 280.




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