Bridging the Gap: Paying it forward with felon-friendly construction company

Bridging the Gap

(Editor’s Note: Watch for Bridging the Gap stories each Monday night at 6.
We will focus on re-entry programs at the detention facility – the largest jail in East Tennessee and will talk with Knox County Sheriff’s Office employees who work directly with inmates to find out how the programs work and how our community can get involved. If your business is hiring former inmates and wants to be featured on our program, email Lori at ltucker@wate.com.)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – When an inmate is released from jail, where does that inmate go? The Knox County Sheriff’s Office says at least 75% of inmates have drug and alcohol problems that led to their arrests.

Until recently, most would go right back to their comfort zone-back to substance abuse -back behind bars. Now, new programs are “bridging the gap,” providing options for inmates through jobs, transportation, getting their driver’s licenses back.

One success story is Ben Kaiser of Knoxville.

These days, he is busy overseeing his construction company’s latest project, renovating a home in west Knoxville for client Cindy Epperly. As she puts it, “there’s a whole lot going on.”

Owning his own firm is something Ben once only dreamed of.
Now 34, he has climbed out of a world of drugs and destruction that plagued him for years.

He showed us a picture of him in 2011 moments after suffering a seizure due to withdrawal from opioids and other drugs.

“When I was 18, I got busted with a couple of pounds of pot and put in prison for it. I went to Brushy Mountain for a few months and that was enough to convince me I did not want to do this long-term,” Ben says. “I straightened up for a little while and had some good jobs. I worked at Alcoa Aluminum Company as a crane operator and did some different things. I lost that job due to a layoff and that kind of started my downfall again and the depression and everything else.”

Ben credits much of his success with the Day Reporting Center on Kingston Pike in West Knoxville. It’s funded by the Tennessee Department of Corrections and judges here locally will choose inmates for this program based on whether they think they’ll be able to succeed.

We were granted behind-the-scenes access to one of the programs in the DRC. Addicts who come here after being incarcerated put in four days a week, six hours a day, learning life skills, changing their old thought patterns.

Director of the program, Sherry Crouse, is passionate about turning lives around. She helps identify inmates who want another chance, working with the system to get them into the DRC.

“If they come out and they don’t have a clean and safe place to live or they are homeless, they are not going ot make it and they’re going to end right back up in jail, ” Crouse says.

Ben Kaiser is one of the success stories.

“I could not have done this without help,” he says.

Now, he’s paying it forward by making his construction company a felony friendly workplace.

Everyone on his team has been through the DRC and has a story of their own about addiction and recovery; like Will Harris, who was addicted to meth.

“Pretty much I’ve been clean and sober for a year and two months now, ” he told us. “So, I’m doing a lot better. Working on getting my license back. Just making steps in changing my life.”

Ben says, “there’s got to be a way we can break this cycle. It’s an epidemic in our community and it’s going nowhere, locking people up for small mistakes or not helping them. I want to be a part of that and try to change these things.”

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