Dr. William Arnold, Director Office of Reentry for the state of Tennessee Photo by Vivian Shipe

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — Dr. William Arnold wants to be a bridge builder. As the Director of the newly formed Office of Re Entry for the state of Tennessee, Dr. Arnold heads the only program in the United States not connected to a department of corrections. OOR seeks to look at those returning to life after prison through a new lens with focus on work and good jobs to lower recidivism. The program has three objectives, increase awareness, track the data, and increase use of services. To reach his goal and to create a model for the nation, Dr. Arnold is traveling the state to see what is already being done and work to reduce silos through his bridge building effort. “Who is already doing the work? Let’s bring them all to the table.” said Arnold. There is plenty of work to do and plenty of people needing services.

According to Arnold, the United States has more people incarcerated than any country in the world and 95 percent of those individuals are coming home.  Currently in the United States, there are over 2 million incarcerated with a little under 50,000 of those in Tennessee. In addition to those locked away, there are over 60,000 in Tennessee on probation and parole. The job before Arnold is to make a pathway home for those who have paid their debt to society; but what does that look like? How do you even begin?

Armold believes it begins with rehumanization. Normalizing reentry and removal of the stigma that the word felon denotes is one way to begin as Dr. Arnold uses terms like Justice Involved and Returning Citizen to describe those returning home who face a select set of issues. Many having suffered prison trauma. They are disconnected, empty, always quizzed. Dr. Arnold believes there needs to be an effort made to normalize the return to society. “We must remove the barriers”. said Arnold. “We are dealing with ordinary people to whom something extraordinary has happened to. Many have given up; we truly don’t know how many are out there in need of help to ensure we lower the recidivism rate”. 

His journey across the state to see what is working brought him to the Knoxville Area Urban League to learn about their new Start Smart workforce programs. The program currently provides services to employers and individuals in Knoxville, Anderson and Blount counties to fill the gap between the needs of employers and skills of the job seekers. KAUL offers job readiness, re-entry for justice involved individuals, and programs for those out of work over a year ready to reenter the workforce.

Arnold also learned of the programs reducing recidivism already being provided by CONNECT Ministries for the last 15 years. The organization offers the CONNECT WORKS 4U workforce development program, a paid workforce experience to prepare those who have been out of the work force for an extended period of time with experience and training as a returning citizen to the work world. CONNECT also has for over a decade been offering the Urban Cowboy Next Steps Restoration Program and the Prince Gillenwaters Round Table, programs all designed to help those justice involved find a way home and stay there.