SPECIAL REPORT: Success beyond the bars

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Every year, more than 500,000 inmates are released from prison.

For many, the transition back into society is not easy. Between 60 and 75 percent finding themselves emotionally lost, and jobless. These statistics are compiled by the Department of Justice.

News Leader 9's Sharifa Jackson shares the story of one Columbus man's struggle to find work, and how one woman is attempting to create a new norm for ex-cons.

"The 35 gap, they looking at me like, I'm an alien, like where you came from?" says Paul Austin, a native of Columbus.

Austin says he is slowly trying to piece together his life after serving over half of his years in prison.

At the age of 24, Austin says he was convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault in 1981. A crime he says he did not commit.

"I was convicted right here in Muscogee County. I served exactly 35 years, a matter of fact, if it wasn't for the Georgia innocent project, I would've still been in," says Austin.

Released in 2016, two years later, Austin says that criminal record is an unwanted shadow that continues to follow him.

"I was exonerated, so I believe that I deserve to be treated like a human being so that I can live out the rest of my life in peace and happiness. Instead of living like a nightmare, except it's not a dream, it's for real," says Austin.

For so many people, the reality is the same. Their criminal records a reminder of their past. Making it hard to find work. One Columbus woman is stepping up, hoping to end this stigma.

"If I can just save one person's life, then I'm making the world of difference in their life," says Tawanna Jackson.

Jackson, a Columbus native starting her own non-profit in 2011, RECOVERY WARRIORZ.

The organization designed help and assists people like Paul's transition out of prison a little bit easier. An endeavor that hits particularly close to home for Jackson.

"I was incarcerated myself, I have eight felonies," says Jackson.

Convicted of multiple counts of aggravated assault and forgery, Jackson says she was able to turn her trials into a testimony.

Now a State worker, and motivational speaker, Jackson teaches inmates the importance of pardons and how to make themselves marketable.

But she says it's not an easy road.

"It's about taking your life back. Nobody is going to give it to you. Nobody is going to feel sorry for me because I went out there and was a knucklehead. So, I had to demand my life back. It's difficult, but I would not say impossible. It's just you have to do the work, and you have to be diligent. You are going to get a lot of no's," says Jackson.

For Austin, it's been continuous 'No's' as he works to adjust to life outside of prison.

But he continues to remain hopeful for the day he finds a job and is able to fully move on with his life.

"My case was thrown out, I can't find a job, can't find a stable place to live. But I'm still trying," says Austin.

Both Austin and Jackson have written books.

Austin has written about his time behind bars, and Jackson about mental health recovery.

Jackson will be hosting an event in Columbus called 'Pathway to Pardons' Feb. 17.

The event is aimed to assist people with criminal convictions receive their pardon free of charge.

The event will be hosted at Columbus Public Library on 3000 Macon Road, February 17, 2018, Rothchild Room from 5pm-6pm.

Contact Tawanna Jackson for more information, (678) -558-9330.

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