‘Providing support and encouragement.’ How former inmates are paying it forward.

Charles Kelly and Jennie Amison pose at the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion center a few years ago. Amison had invited Kelly to speak to the men she counsels there. (Courtesy of Charles Kelly.)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Charles Kelly was arrested for the last time in August 2001. He’d been incarcerated for a few different stints over the years because of his cocaine and heroin addictions. This time, he had a two-year sentence to serve – the final six months of which he spent at Gemeinschaft Home in Harrisonburg, a therapeutic residential program for those under court supervision or leaving incarceration.

“My mind was made up to make a change, having gained a solid relationship with Christ while incarcerated,” Kelly wrote to The Citizen in an email. 

Another key factor in that change was the influence of Jennie Amison, director of the Gemeinschaft at the time. She’s now a substance abuse counselor, workforce development specialist and peer recovery specialist at the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center. 

“Jennie ran a structured program with an approach like a mother would have with a house full of her own sons,” Kelly said. “That program was key to where I am today, over 18 years later.”

Where he is today is a position that makes Amison immensely proud, as Kelly is now a peer recovery specialist himself. He works part-time with recovering heroin addicts and other folks with mental health challenges who are still incarcerated with the Virginia Department of Corrections. (The rest of the time, he can be found at his Virginia Beach barber shop.)

Peer recovery specialists are trained mentors who have their own experiences with mental health or substance abuse that allow them to deeply understand and connect with those just starting their recovery journey. 

A few years ago, the Department of Corrections began hiring peer recovery specialists to work with inmates. 

“What I enjoy most about peer recovery is I get to use my personal experience in substance abuse and with the judicial system, and my 21 years of success being drug-free without arrest, [and] obtaining my civil rights again to vote and serve on a jury … to provide support and encouragement to others that are in the struggle currently,” Kelly said. 

‘Like living in a fog for 30 years’

Kelly struggled with drug use for 30 years, starting with smoking marijuana when he was 12. His early experiences of poverty and racial segregation in small-town North Carolina left deep wounds, and he said marijuana “seemed to provide some relief from the pain.”

One incident was especially hurtful.

“It was during the year of 1969, at the end of segregation of schools that I identified a problem – the culture shock of growing up in the Jim Crow south, in a small city where, prior to age 10, there was no contact with whites. I’d never been around them at all,” Kelly said. 

Suddenly, Kelly was thrown into an integrated school. In an attempt to build bonds between the kids, Black and white students were paired up to have sleepovers at each other’s houses – and the classmate Kelly was matched with came from an affluent family.

“Seeing how my classmate lived as opposed to the conditions I lived in in public housing, and then having to return home, was the opening to the feeling of low self-worth and shame. Especially when it was time for my classmate to spend a weekend at my home,” Kelly said. 

Kelly went on to graduate from high school, attended two years of college, and joined the Marine Corps. He was honorably discharged after four years, and while he’d smoked marijuana, he eventually began to use cocaine and heroin. Occasionally, he’d have run-ins with the law.

“It was like living in a fog for 30 years with no real direction,” he said. 

Kelly credits Amison, his family and his wife, Cheryl – with whom he reunited after nine years of separation – as the “wind beneath my wings … a conduit to the life I get to live today.” 

Kelly got clean after his last arrest, but Amison said he was still a “handful” when he got to Gemeinschaft. 

“I had to give him a little more tough love, because he was more of a hard cookie to crack,” Amison said. “He had the intellectual ability. He had the personality. He had everything going for him. He was a smooth operator!” 

Now, though, their relationship has grown deeper than that of an authority figure and an inmate – he’s one of the men Amison refers to as her “sons.” And he’s not the only son who’s followed in her footsteps.

Sharing guidance and advice

(Courtesy of Jamii Wood)

Jamii Wood first crossed paths with Amison around 2013 at the Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County. This was the last facility in which he was incarcerated. He started out in Southampton in 1992, when he was just 18 years old. He served a total of 25 years.

“He was humble … I found him to always be teachable,” Amison said. 

After one of her first sessions with him, “he just flourished from there, and I knew that he was going to be successful.”

Now Wood is also a peer recovery specialist with the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“He is doing a fantastic job. Everything that he learned, he’s now giving back to those guys,” Amison said.

Wood lives in Richmond, where he grew up. He works with prison inmates across the central region of the state, all virtually now because of the pandemic. While that contact is better than nothing, he said, trying to compensate for the physical separation has become the most challenging part of his job.

Wood said the men he works with love hearing his stories about “becoming more independent,” especially problem solving through stressful situations, like being broke and having the brakes go out on his car.

“I love going in and sharing my stories with them and telling them how I got over those hurdles,” he said. “That gets their ear.”

Many of these men effectively grow up in prison, he explained, serving long sentences after being removed from society as teenagers. The world changes immensely while they’re incarcerated, especially in terms of technology. Take, for instance, a modern soda machine at a fast food restaurant that now features a touch screen to select your beverage. After getting out, Wood encountered one of these at a Wendy’s and was embarrassed to have to ask how to use it.

“It’s things like that that if you’re not patient with yourself, you’ll get frustrated easily, and you’ll get overwhelmed,” he said. “You don’t know how much the institution is in you until you get out here … you come out physically grown, but not mentally and emotionally grown.”

In addition to preparing his mentees for the outside world’s challenges, Wood also imparts some relationship lessons, like coaching the men on interacting with their wives, daughters and mothers when they get out. He said it’s most often women in a family who visit and look after their incarcerated loved ones.

“We owe it to the women in our families to support and give back to them and take the weight off their shoulders,” Wood said.

As for Amison, seeing Wood and Kelly healthy and helping others does take some weight off her shoulders.

“I am very, very proud of them, and they’re just like my sons,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

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