BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Deborah Daniels has been out of prison 22 years, and even though she hasn’t reoffended, she can’t stop going back. Daniels is the Southeast area director for Prison Fellowship Ministries and co-founder of the Offender Alumni Association (OAA), a network of people who have been in the system that provide support to those who are recently released.
In 2014, Daniels came up the idea based on her own struggles of trying to find a job and adjusting to life after prison.
“I realized there was a missing link,” Daniels said. “The idea is no different than NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). One offender helping another offender.”
The community of volunteers Daniels formed provides crucial emotional encouragement and connections to housing, transportation, jobs, all areas where former prisoners often face huge barriers.
OAA holds three support forums per week in Birmingham, and hosts community projects, like picking up trash, or meeting with young people, so members can give back to the communities they might have hurt with their crimes.
“For a lot of us, the second half of our lives is nothing more than an opportunity to make up for the first half,” said Cedric Kendricks, who served 24 years in Alabama prisons for robbery and attempted murder. Kendricks was released in 2017 and now works full time and regularly attends OAA events.
“Because I’ve hurt people, now is my opportunity to help people,” he said. “I’ve stolen from people, so now is my opportunity to give to people. I’ve hated people, now is my opportunity to love people.”
Dena Dickerson serves as Executive Director for OAA, a volunteer position that requires about 35 hours a week. Dickerson also works full time as a case manager for the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter in Birmingham.
When she was released from prison seven years ago after serving a decade on a drug conviction, Dickerson felt like she’d been dropped into another country. Her son was six when she went to prison, he was 16 when she got out. She relied on mentors and a few caring people to guide her through the transition.
“What the offender needs most of all is mental and emotional support,” she said. “The offender doesn’t even know that. I didn’t know that.”
Dickerson first lived in a halfway house and had to learn to budget her money from a job at a Bessemer warehouse making $7.25 an hour. She slowly built up confidence and experience, which she now uses to help others in that vulnerable place of reentering a society that continually stigmatizes people with a criminal record, long after their release from prison.
Dickerson said finding employment is often the hardest challenge for people coming out of prison. When someone is continually rejected because of a past mistake, it wears on their self-esteem.
“That person exists when the crime is over,” she said. “We need more employers that are willing to put a person to work, not the crime, but the person.”
OAA is now in Alabama and Georgia. Daniels said the need is huge with 600,000 incarcerated people released back into communities on any given day.
“If we don’t have the platform, the network to embrace them, then we’re going to continue to be in this cycle,” she said. “Offender is our way of saying this is who we were, it doesn’t mean that’s who we are today.”
Saturday, April 13 at 8pm, OAA will host a “Citizenship Test” fundraiser at Cahaba Brewing Company. Click here for more information.