Charlotte J. Nash | Chairman, Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners

When Gage Bryant was 13 years old, he fell in with some older kids who were in and out of trouble. One night, the group was involved in a robbery in which an elderly couple was killed. Gage didn’t commit the murder but he was arrested, charged and convicted as an accessory. He received a 35-year sentence, but it might as well have been a life sentence. His future looked bleak.

But he kept his nose clean, behaved himself, and impressed the staff at the Gwinnett County Department of Corrections where they keep medium- and minimum-security state inmates and county inmates sentenced to full-time incarceration. When it was time to select inmates for the 14 slots for the department’s second welding classes offered with Gwinnett Technical College, Gage was chosen. At the end of the 16-week program, Gage held certifications in multiple welding techniques. More than that, Gage, 25, holds a shot at reclaiming his life when he gets out, possibly in a year for good behavior.

The Corrections welding class, now in its second year, allows inmates like Gage to get a good-paying job upon release and break the cycle of recidivism that keeps so many in the penal system. In the first graduating class, all 11 of the graduates released found jobs immediately.

Landing a job is one of the hardest and most critical pieces needed to start life over after getting out of prison. Employers are often skittish about hiring a convicted criminal, leaving some newly released inmates feeling like crime is their only real option. But thanks to the welding program, Gage and his fellow graduates can show prospective employers that they have what it takes to be productive.

Before release, the inmates also go through a 12-week course on day-to-day survival on the outside. The curriculum covers opening accounts, paying bills, using computers, and other critical life skills.

Some inmates are allowed to transfer to a transitional center where they stay at night but leave for regular jobs during the day. The money they earn is put in a special account wait-ing for them when they are released. The nest egg gives them a head start when the re-enter the world.

The welding program is a relatively new innovation at Corrections. It got started in 2018 when the ARC contacted Shontese Renfroe-Wilson, Gwinnett’s vocation/education coordinator, about helping fund a new program to help inmates find gainful employment. Renfroe-Wilson started researching job skills and learned there is a great need for welders. She reached out to Gwinnett Technical College, which readily agreed.

The result is a program that offers young men like Gage a way out of the life of crime. It’s a program that offers opportunity, dreams, and hope.