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Fresh Start: Paying it back, paying it forward

The guys who are participating in the Fresh Start Program, an offshoot of Appalachian Promise, are paying their dues as they pay forward for the next generation of participants. Their accomplishments are setting the stage for the next group of Claiborne County Jail inmates to succeed.

As of Aug. 19, the 24 men have contributed to the payoff of $20,001.33 in court costs and $3,172.67 in child support.

Bad debts and late due utility bills are being wiped off the slate as well. More than $9,000 in bad debts and charge offs have been paid back. And, electric companies are benefiting with paybacks of some $8,692 so far.

“This would never have been possible without the hard work and dedication of these men to have a better life. This is a group effort and it takes the sheriff’s department, the mayor and, of course, the ‘Boss Man’ at Homesteaders – Anthony Mountain – and each person there,” said Sherri Hoskins, who created the program.

Hoskins is in the process of moving the pilot program to Sevierville and Union County. Meanwhile, she is also laying the final groundwork for the adjunct program – Fresh Start for Women. The policies and procedures are now in place and Hoskins has added the program onto the Appalachian Promise insurance policy. She is currently choosing the first group of women to participate in the program.

“I’ve been meeting with my probation officials about issues for down the road. Meetings are set to seek employment for our women, so we will pray and hope that a deal can be met.

“Our females need help and Sheriff Brooks has always made that a priority. He is always spot-on when it comes to assisting everyone in the county. I cannot begin to commend each person in his entire department for all they do to make Fresh Start work,” said Hoskins.

Fresh Start is not your typical work-release program. Hoskins spent two years writing the initial program objectives and creating strict qualification guidelines. Those who qualify must have attained the rank of trustee. Those incarcerated on more serious charges are banned from the program.

Hoskins then turned to Homesteader, Inc., whose owners were very receptive to the testing of the pilot program in their factory.

In February, 12 inmates began using the program, working full time. Twelve more were eventually added to the workforce as they were qualified.

Their salaries go toward paying court costs, fines, probation fees and, for those who owe it, restitution and child support. The program also encourages the building of an “untouchable” savings account that helps in paying living expenses like rent and utilities, once released. Salaries go directly into the bank account instead of being handed to the inmates.

The program is geared to helping the participants improve their credit standings. Through their labor, any unpaid bills that show on their credit statements are paid off with their wages.

Courses in money management are required. Hoskins also offers the participants classes in what she describes as etiquette and basic life skills.

She says she hopes the program will allow these men and women the chance to change the directions of their lives.

“They come out of jail debt-free with money in the savings account. This is the best way I can help them to get on their feet. These individuals are blessed with a second chance,” said Hoskins.

Sheriff Bob Brooks recently praised the program, saying it allows a chance for inmates to become productive members of society while cutting down the number of those reentering the prison system.

“Nearly every day, the men who are in this program tell me how appreciative they are to be given the chance to participate,” said Brooks.

Tennessee governor Bill Lee is looking at this pilot program – reportedly the first of its kind in the state. If all goes as planned, Fresh Start could go statewide.