Sustainable Redemption

Michael Tate, a poet, looks to the sky

BURLINGTON – Michael Tate spent a third of his life in prison. He was a member of the 974 Insane Gangster Disciples in Burlington, a gang with a nationwide following. His rap-sheet is long, but among the more severe charges he racked up were two counts of second-degree kidnapping with a dangerous weapon after he took the police on a high speed chase for about three hours.

That was when he was 18 years old. Now he is 29 and he has turned it all around. He has a fiancé with a baby, and he is on the verge of publishing three volumes of poetry.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

Tate got out of prison in January, and with the help of Sustainable Alamance, a non-profit organization that helps ex-convicts restore and sustain their lives, he is on a different path, one of atonement.

The company has expanded the scope of sustainability – which usually involves the environment these days – by providing support to ex-offenders through mentoring and teaching programs, while helping them find jobs and training them to enter new ventures so they can provide for themselves and their families.

“In order to not be in that predicament again, you have to change. It’s not a forceful thing,” Tate said. “Being gone a decade, you still have some of those habits like a quick temper and attitude.”

Sustainable Alamance is run by Phil Bowers, whose ambition is to see it flourish into a company that can create jobs of its own. He plans on setting up a waste vegetable oil collecting business, where he has some expertise and a bakery in the near future.

“This will allow us to sell into the communities that these guys victimized,” Bowers said.

In the long run, Bowers wants to create a green remodeling business, while sending a group of ex-offenders back to school to learn green technologies and how to install solar panels, water heaters and lighting.

“This will give them skills for the new economy, so they don’t get left behind,” Bowers said. 

The potential infrastructure is available in terms of the training hands, he said. But he is relying on state and federal grants and community support to raise enough start-up capital for these projects. Though, most of the funding comes from his retirement savings to run other aspects of the business.

At this moment, finding some form of employment for men with criminal records is the main function of the program. In November it was assisting 20 men, helping them earn almost $65,000 in wages since it began operating at the end of 2008. Both numbers are expected to rise, Bowers said.

“We’ve got them all, from substance abusers to federal level drug dealers and murders,” he said. “The majority have been in (prison) multiple times.”

They have served sentences between two and 15 years. 

Of the 20 members, six have found full-time employment and 12 have temporary jobs. Only two have returned to prison when the state’s recidivism rates are about 60 percent, Bowers said.

For the majority, finding stable employment is difficult.

Tate said he finds work, in the form of mowing lawns about twice a week, earning from $50 to $200 per week. He spends the rest of his time writing and editing his poetry, a passion he discovered in prison.  

“Having that many crimes, it is hard to get a job,” Tate said.

For many ex-convicts who are freshly released from prison, bills and fees accumulate. Probation officers, court appointed attorneys and child support fees are the most common. Failure to pay usually ends in re-incarceration.

“When a man comes out of prison, he is placed on probation and he has to pay a fee,” Bowers said. “How is he to do this when he does not have a job?”

Apart from a criminal record restricting a person’s opportunity for employment, many ex-offenders lack any specialized skills. According to Bowers, 50 percent of the group had not earned their high school diploma or equivalency before joining the program.

“There is a crisis of emergency over education,” Bowers said.

The program aims to nurture a marketable set of skills for the group, an important dimension that potentially widens the doorway to employment.   

But a diploma still does not guarantee a job. They need additional training.

Tommy Purcell at age 49 is an ex-alcoholic who joined the program in March 2009. He was a carpenter and an entrepreneur, who threw his business away because of his drinking problem in 1997. He continued to spiral downwards until he entered the program.

Work is hard to come by for him, despite his vast experience with the maintenance, repair and remodeling of homes. He takes what he can get for minimum wage whenever something comes his way.

On average, members in the program who found full time employment received it after a two to three months search, and it took everyone in the group from four to six weeks to find temporary work, according to Bowers. 

“How can a community require but not offer them some legitimate means to pay their obligations?” Bowers said. 

Besides the practical aspect, the program looks to foster social skills while teaching conflict management and other fundamentals to the group. They are closely linked to the Piedmont Men of Steel, a faith based fellowship that also acts as a support group.

Bowers believes Purcell is one of the biggest success stories coming out of this program. Before 2009 arrived, Purcell was a raging alcoholic and, by his own estimates, had visited a county jail cell about 200 times with five trips to prison and 15 DUI convictions. He had been a drunk since he was 14-years old.

In January he decided to stop drinking – with the help of only himself – after learning about the program.

“Something just clicked,” he said. “I was a broke down, worn out, tired guy ready to come in.”

Now, he uses his free time to perform volunteer work for the church and fellowship, and he has remained sober ever since.

“I get satisfaction out of helping people,” he said.  

A portion of his earnings go toward child support and back-payments for his two daughters, with whom he is trying to rekindle a relationship. Those are his only financial obligations because he is forced to live with his mother.

Tate has different story to tell, like so many others. After he served his 10-year prison sentence, Tate waited a few months before he joined the program, and he never left home during that time.

“I did not go out because I wanted to find out who I was before anyone else did,” he said.

He needed to know more about himself, beyond just the words of poetry. The gloomy environment of prison had taught him so much about the world.

“I started writing because I began to see a lot of things that were not right,” he said. “The human race.”

With the mentoring and assistance of Sustainable Alamance, he has learned to appreciate his life.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, so often of his freedom and his new perception of the world.

 Bowers had been contacted by about 80 ex-offenders until November, and he continues to receive about three phone calls a week.

“Not everyone wants to put in the time,” Bowers said.  “It’s a life change business that we are in.”