06-18-2019 · GRIP

Dudley Arnold found himself standing in front of a parole board after more than half of his life spent in a jail cell.

The Athens native had a “normal childhood,” but he said he always “wanted to grow up too fast.” For this reason, he says he ran into trouble with police and served his first time in jail as a teenager. He left jail after serving four years of a 10-year sentence, but he immediately went back to his old ways once he was released.

Arnold was involved in a police shootout in his late 20s, and in this moment, he had to make a decision to either end it all or go back to prison. Arnold was shot, and then placed into the back of an ambulance.

Looking up at paramedics as they raced him to the hospital, he felt a flood of relief. He knew he didn’t have to run anymore.

Arnold was facing three life sentences plus 40 years in prison.

His fate was determined. He thought he would never leave his jail cell. So, instead he focused on improving his own well-being. Over the course of 29 years in prison, Arnold found religion and allowed God to transform his life. He became a mentor for other prisoners, and then something miraculous happened.

Arnold had the possibility of being released on parole. He would finally have a chance to leave prison and transform his life forever. But he was scared. He didn’t know what his life would look like on the outside. He didn’t have a place to go, and he didn’t want to be released to his 82-year-old mother. Faced with being released to the streets, Arnold asked if he could remain in jail.

This is a problem that many of Greater Atlanta’s prison population faces, says Liz Danley, director of the Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program. She says that roughly 35,000 people are released from jail each year from Gwinnett County Detention Center, and about 10 percent of those people have no place to go.

“Probably back in 2011-2012, in Gwinnett County specifically, Sheriff [Butch] Conway saw a need for individuals being released from jail,” Danley said. “Because of homelessness, they would just be sleeping in the lobby.”

Gwinnett County elected to invest drug forfeiture funds into GRIP, Danley said. The program received around $125,000 and was matched with United Way dollars to provide resources for these homeless individuals.

“We have a GRIP coordinator in the jail, and we have a corporal who makes up our jail team,” Danley said. “It’s largely self-referral, and we look at those referrals and what services we can provide for them pre-release and post-release.”

Danley said GRIP has about 60 partners who help them with housing, employment and health services. She said they have also partnered with Uber and Lyft for the “Uplift” program, which provides transportation services to citizens so they can make appointments with probation officers, doctors or at their new jobs.

GRIP also partners with ViewPoint Health in Gwinnett to provide mental health services for those in need.

“We have a robust faith-based partnership with Greater Gwinnett Re-entry Alliance,” Danley said. “We have 70-plus faith-based partners to help us fill in the gaps.”

The faith-based partnerships often step in on the weekends or during off hours when inmates are released.

Danley said GRIP has also partnered with an application called “Pocket,” which inmates set up before release. The application helps them keep up with important dates, too. She said it’s a way for officers to make sure inmates “follow up with probation requirements.”

“The end goal is to reduce recidivism,” Danley said. “When we were tracking [inmates involved with GRIP] we had reduced it by half, and that’s really impactful. That’s a huge impact. We’re trying to help these people, but also reduce taxpayer dollars. At the time, we reduced upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars just from this unique population.”

GRIP has similar partnerships with Rockdale County and Fulton County. GRIP’s success is largely due to promotion the program had received from donors, partners and local law enforcement.

“GRIP is really excellent about having support from higher up, and it’s evolved over time and adjusted with changes,” Danley said. “We’ve evolved with apps for case management, and that’s something innovative that we’re doing.”

Arnold was introduced to Lee Robbins, founder of Life Empowerment Enterprises, a re-entry program in Gwinnett that partners with United Way. Robbins was able to provide Arnold with encouragement and support. Most importantly, he helped Arnold find a place to go after his release so he could focus on getting his life together.

There were some obvious adjustments that Arnold had to get used to. He was blown away by the newest technology — learning how to pump gas and use a debit card was such a foreign concept to him.

But the 56-year-old Arnold threw himself into church and his new job. While at church, he met a woman, and he’s now engaged to be married. The two of them love spending time together with their dog, Abby.

Arnold is an example of the need for this program and the success that is possible through this program. For those people who are in a similar situation as him, he offers his own encouragement.

“Never give up,” he says. “It can and will get better!”

Click here for more information about GRIP and how to give.