It’s graduation day at the Charleston County detention center, but the 14 inmates gathered in striped jumpsuits aren’t leaving these concrete walls, not yet anyway.
Instead, they are graduating from their old selves, the criminal ones who stole, dealt drugs, assaulted others and whatever else they saw fit.
They are committed to changing their futures, thanks to The Turning Leaf Project.
One by one, gathered in the jail’s recreation room Tuesday, each inmate steps forward to share what he has learned in the program before graduating.
Sean Doctor, a bearded man with tattooed arms, echoes the thoughts of many.
“Thanks for turning me into a new me,” Doctor says.
As they share essays, poetry and skits, many inmates thank the crime victims who came to Turning Leaf’s sessions to discuss their pain and traumas so that these inmates might change their lives.
One woman lost her toddler to a drunk driver. Another was shot by her estranged husband.
As the men describe changes they are making, the victims, and the offenders, tear up.
Then, they all thank Turning Leaf founder Amy Barch.
Let’s just say hers is not lucrative work.
At 34, the college-educated Barch works weekends as a waitress to support her volunteer time running The Turning Leaf Project, which she recently founded in Charleston County’s large detention center.
“I’ve just always been passionate about working with people who are incarcerated,” Barch says.
When she moved to West Ashley in 2010, she had just spent three years working in Washington, D.C., with an offender re-entry program. She helped inmates find housing and other needs as they transitioned into the community.
Then, she worked as an advocate to end the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole.
Yet, when she moved to Charleston, she found a lack of services for offenders, both incarcerated and transitioning back into the larger community.
So she contacted the Charleston County detention center.
“Put me to work,” she said.
She began volunteering and launched The Turning Leaf Project in April 2011.
The project runs three days a week over about 10 weeks, or for 60 hours of instruction in the jail. Barch takes about 20 inmates in each session. Some are violent offenders facing lengthy sentences; others are serving 90 days or less for minor crimes.
The first half of each session focuses on victims. From survivors of domestic and childhood abuse to drunk driving victims, they talk candidly to the inmates.
And the inmates respond.
At 65, Frank Middleton stands before the victims who have come to wish them well.
“My whole life, I never sat and thought about the impact of crime on people. I did what I had to, to get what I needed,” Middleton says.
The second half of Turning Leaf looks at refocusing inmate’s thoughts to change behaviors. For instance, they learn to recognize red-flag thoughts, ones such as: I’m not going to get caught.
They learn to think about the likely outcomes of their actions. They learn new ways to react when they get angry. They learn how to apologize.
Altogether, nearly 150 inmates have participated, and 76 have graduated from Turning Leaf. Of the 30 graduates who have been released from the Charleston County detention center, three have been rearrested.
That is a 10 percent recidivism rate. The average of all inmates in South Carolina is about 30 percent, according to the state Department of Corrections.
And the concept is expanding.
Last fall, Barch took Turning Leaf into the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, which pays her a small, part-time salary.
In Charleston, she relies on changed lives as payment.
At the graduation, Barch reminds the men that even if society judges them, each one is important to her.
“You are part of my family,” she says. “You will always have my support.”
Nathaniel McCloud graduated from Turning Leaf in January and was released from jail the next month.
He recalls one victim who spoke to his group: a woman whose husband shot her and killed her mother. Her story affected him so deeply that even months later, he still chokes up talking about it.
“That lady was truly strong. I can’t imagine surviving that,” McCloud says. “You’re confronted with victims, people severely damaged because of someone else’s careless act.”
Now 53, McCloud also realized through the program that he and alcohol are not a good mix.
The Navy veteran is on probation for two years, has completed a drug and alcohol program through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and says he has been clean for three months.
Why does Turning Leaf work? McCloud credits Barch.
“She believes in what she’s doing, and that is what affects most of us,” McCloud says. “If you can convince a rape victim to come talk about the most horrible moment in her life, that takes a real belief in what you’re doing.”
Now back home, he looks around his North Charleston neighborhood and sees kids whose only role models are making bad decisions, namely selling drugs and becoming addicted to them.
That’s why McCloud is switching his Trident Technical College major from machine tool theory to human services with drug and alcohol counseling. He’d like to work with Barch one day to help others.
“Going to jail and meeting Amy has really changed me,” McCloud says. “It forced me to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I’m just glad that Amy was holding the mirror.”
Next, Barch plans to complete a business plan and look at offering Turning Leaf in other jails.
After all, the cost is low because much of the curriculum is online. All that most jails would need is an effective facilitator.
Barch also is talking with the College of Charleston with the hope of using space there to hold support groups and other after-release programs.
As more Turning Leaf graduates transition back into freedom, she wants them to find support among one another.
Inmate Lewis Thompson stands to begin Barch’s seventh Charleston jail graduation.
But instead of introducing the inmates, he turns to Barch. He graduated from Turning Leaf himself and then offered to assist her for another six months.
“My doubts have been replaced with confidence,” Thompson says, his voice catching as he holds up a certificate for her.
When Barch walks up to get it, wiping her eyes, the entire group of inmates stands to applaud.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.