Community, system support a key to successful re-entry from prison

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Small business owner says probation officer made huge difference for her

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Jen Shipley’s road from waitress to office manager to successful small business owner didn’t look quite the same as many successful entrepreneurs’.

It had an earlier stage – a stint of incarceration in the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) system.

“I took a second chance and ran with it,” Shipley told News Channel 11 Wednesday. “I didn’t want to go back.”

The mix of discrimination she’s faced and support she’s received motivated Shipley to speak openly 11 about the challenges of “reentry” during national Reentry Week.

She said progress is occurring as more employers hire former offenders and support programs broaden, but she believes things are far from where they could be.

“It doesn’t mean you have to dish out money or give somebody a place to stay,” Shipley said between trips back to the kitchen to prepare carry out orders. “Just be support, just be kind, try to be understanding and realize that we all come from a different place, we’ve all taken different paths and that doesn’t make anybody less than anybody else.”

Jen Shipley

Shipley, who owns Frannie’s Vegan Cafe, said a strongly supportive family and a caring probation officer helped her navigate life after serving time for an offense rooted in drug addiction when she was in her 20s.

She said many of the people she met behind bars don’t have the same foundation.

“I have a good family, I come from a good place, I just kind of got lost for a little while,” Shipley said. “But a lot of people don’t have family, a lot of people don’t have friends and it’s important that if we can be a support system for somebody else, it’s key to people’s success.”

Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) Commissioner Tony Parker agreed. He said the more people can both pay their debt to society in the community and be embraced by that community on release, the healthier communities will be.

“At the end of the day that’s what we want, better results, because better results leads to higher levels of public safety, which leads to safer environments and communities across Tennessee as a whole,” Parker said.

Turning point started with an awkward reunion

For Shipley, an important turning point came when Emily Rogers was assigned as her probation officer. She said the days and months after release tend to be high-risk for making poor decisions.

Lots of expectations are placed on people who may not have much of a support system, she said, and when prospective employers turn a person who owes fines and fees away from a job opportunity, it can be tempting to give up.

“I came home and immediately started to look for work and when you’re honest and say, ‘hey this is what I’ve experienced’ – it’s hard,” Shipley said.

“I’m 15 years later, and it still can be challenging. I’ve lost jobs I’ve had because the background check came back or somebody else found out. I’ve lost friends. But our past doesn’t define us at all.”

A former high school classmate helped Shipley learn that. Emily Rogers was assigned as her PO and said things were a little awkward, but only at the very first.

“I told her I wouldn’t treat her differently than anybody else and I was there to hold her accountable and to hold her hand and give her the tools that she needed to succeed if that’s what she wanted to do,” Rogers remembered. “And that’s exactly what she wanted to do.”

Not every match is perfect, and when high expectations, disappointments in the community and rejection set in — as they often do — people’s resiliency gets tested.

“It’s really hard when you get on probation to trust the system,” Shipley said. “We all can agree that there are things that need to be fixed.”

Many people reoffend and return to life on the inside. Shipley said Rogers was an important part of that not happening in her case.

Jen Shipley, left, and her former probation officer Emily Rogers inside Shipley’s cafe

“It helps when you get somebody who really does care, it’s not just a job and that person for me was Emily Rogers.

“She was absolutely truthful and didn’t sugarcoat anything but she was also somebody who cared about me – she still checks in on me to this day.”

Shipley started a job with a pizza place when local entrepreneur Michael Mansy gave her a chance. Bump in the road one happened within a couple months, but the owner of Freiberg’s Restaurant, Andreas Herholz, had been asking her to work there.

“I learned a lot of what I’m using today from him,” Shipley said.

Needing benefits — she has a son who’s now 13 — Shipley then “wore down” a local drywall company, in her words, until they hired her as an office administrator.

Another bump in the road came in 2019 when the company was sold and she was told her job would be eliminated. By then, Shipley was ready to pursue her dream of owning a small business and she opened Frannie’s just months before COVID-19 struck.

Despite her success, Shipley said she it was “nerve-wracking” to speak with the media about her story. She said many people with past records and incarceration feel the same.

“That’s the past and yes, I don’t live there anymore but most of the people in my life today don’t know about that Jen,” she said. “No clue. Like this is gonna be shocking to a lot of people.

“But I’m not ashamed, I’m not embarrassed. It’s all made me who I am, it’s all brought me here. The  path has been a little beaten, a little hard, but I’m here.”

Commissioner: We can get more Jen Shipley stories

Shipley said her success story is one far more people could enjoy, but that attitudes must continue to change and community support systems must continue expanding.

TDOC’s Parker agreed. He said the benefits will be both societal and financial and that Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is pushing criminal justice reforms that could move things in the direction Shipley is hoping for.

“We’re tough on crime, but we have to be smart on crime and being smart on crime is looking at trends and looking at the evidence as to what reduces recidivism and what does not, what changes behavior, and what does not,” Parker said.

“And, and most importantly who needs to be in an $80 a day prison cell versus being in the community under supervision at three and four dollars a day.”

Parker said good job opportunities, compassionate program providers and filling peoples’ time with what he called “pro-social supports” all have to be part of solutions that may seem very lofty given the long struggle with high recidivism rates.

“We already know that when people are out in the community with the right supervision based on risk, and you’re providing them the right programs and they have more pro-social support there than they would in a facility, you’re going to get better results,” he said.

Staying busy helps people avoid former habits of behavior.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we want, better results, because better results leads to higher levels of public safety which leads to safer environments and communities across Tennessee.”

Job opportunities and a greater number of open-minded employers is another key, Rogers said. She encourages her clients to sell the fact that they’re on probation or parole to a prospective employer.

I tell them to say, ‘I’ve got an extra set of eyes on me, I’ve got extra drug screens, I’ve got extra things that they’re holding me accountable for, and so go ahead and take a shot on hiring me on and you can talk to my probation officer and you all can correspond.’”

Rogers said employers who hire people who are re-entering and really want to work couldn’t be happier with the results.

“Once they show that they’ve got a good work ethic they usually don’t mind at all that they’re on probation and parole and actually welcome it.”

Parker, Rogers and Shipley all hold out hope that high reoffending rates can be curbed. In 2010, Tennessee’s three-year recidivism rate — the percentage of felony inmates who are reincarcerated within three years of their release — was 50.5 percent.

In 2016 it had dropped a bit, to 47.1 percent.

“Our new numbers have not come out for last year for three-year recidivism rates, but we’re hopeful to see some some good progression there and reduction in recidivism,” Parker said.

“We’ll see the new recidivism numbers before long … and I think that’ll tell the story really. When you look at you how we’re doing in the state and how these reforms will help us going forward.”

And it’s just possible that some reforms could allow quite a few more people to serve their sentences in the community, Parker said.

“We really have to look at who we’re putting in prison. Is it someone who is a violent criminal … or is it people who have addiction issues that break the law, or mental health issues that cause them to break the law?”

He said reforming those efforts saves tax money and that’s driven many states to the table, including politically conservative ones, to study options.

“But not only save taxpayer dollars, get a better return on the investment because we know people who go through those programs in the community, those programs are more effective in a community setting, where a mom can still be a mother, a dad can still be a dad.”

Those kind of spoken goals are music to Shipley’s ears.

“Even the punishments for the crimes,” she said. “I mean we can start there – things that people are getting arrested and going to jail for. I mean, we’re ripping families apart over silly stuff.”

And she believes more people can chart a path like hers.

“I’m an example. I’m few and far between. A lot of people don’t even make it off of probation much less get a job much less live a ‘normal productive life.’

“But if there weren’t people who gave me second third fourth fifth chances I certainly wouldn’t be where I was, or where I am.”

Where she is is a place Parker believes a lot more people get to and where her former probation officer is overjoyed to see her.

“She’s not only out of the system, she’s winning,” Rogers said. “She’s winning at life you know, not just kind of getting by. It’s just fantastic and it just brings a smile to my face just to even think about it.”

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