Photos by Scott Rogers The Times
Tom Allanson of Cumming founded Set Free After-Care Ministry. Set Free provides a place to stay and Christian-based counseling for people recently released from prison.
Scott Rogers The Times
Tommy Mashburn, just recently accepted into the Set Free After-Care Ministry, wanted to enter a Christian-based counseling program, and is currently looking for a job to pay his portion of the apartment bills. Getting a job, paying bills, and saving money is mandatory for the program.
Scott Rogers The Times
Nate Wilson explains how the Set Free After-Care Ministry has helped him straighten out his life after serving 20 years in prison for stealing cars.
Scott Rogers The Times
Set Free After-Care Ministry "house man" Robert Watkins lives with the men in the counseling program and enforces the strict rules of the program. Watkins, a former prisoner himself, leads devotional, and helps the men get to their jobs and around town.
On the Net
Georgia prison facts
There are 59,000 men and women incarcerated in Georgia
Georgia has the fifth-largest prison population in the nation and ninth-largest per capita
More than 350 inmates are released from Georgia prisons each week, a total of 19,000 per year
Felony inmates are released with $25, a prison ID, and a bus ticket home
One in 15 men in Georgia are under some form of supervision from the Georgia Department of Corrections, Probation, or Pardons and Parole.
Source: Set Free After-Care Ministry, Georgia Department of Corrections
Tom Allanson's mission in life is helping those who have walked in his shoes. It's been just six months since the 63-year-old Cumming man opened his first halfway house for newly released ex-convicts in Monroe. But Allanson, founder of Set Free After-Care Ministry, has been helping prisoners almost as soon as he became one 33 years ago.
And while some of those he now helps have spent just a few years behind bars, Allanson has a special place in his heart for the lifers. Because he was a lifer.
Allanson's story was so remarkable it became a book. In 1974, he was convicted of two counts of murder in Pike County and sentenced to two life terms for the shooting deaths of his parents. He was paroled 15 years later in light of evidence that he acted in self-defense.
His ex-wife was implicated in the events that led to his imprisonment, and eventually served time herself. Best-selling true crime author Ann Rule wrote the book, "Everything She Ever Wanted," about Allanson's case.
When asked how he came to be sentenced to two life terms, Allanson says simply, "I married the wrong woman."
In 1980, six years into his prison sentence, Allanson dropped all his appeals, turned his life over to God and began ministering. In 1989, he was paroled. He gives more credit to God for his release than the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
"When I got strong enough to carry the load, he opened the doors and I got out," Allanson said.
Some would have walked away from those prison doors and never looked back. Yet Allanson was compelled to reach out to those still on the inside.
"I felt a strong pull and passion to go back and minister to those guys," he said. "Some of them were hurting so bad in prison."
Allanson started helping them in their transition to life after prison. He held down a good-paying job as a wastewater operator for 15 years and became an ordained minister.
Then in 2003, Allanson broke his neck in a car accident and suffered a paralyzing stroke. He said his recovery led him to the next step: starting up a transitional home for ex-cons.
"It was like God was saying, 'slow down, I got something for you to do,'" Allanson said.
Transition is tough
The cluster of handsome new townhouse apartments on Nowell Street near downtown Monroe sticks out among the signs of abject poverty that surround them. Shotgun houses and trash-strewn yards are more common to the neighborhood than the tidy lawns and brick facades of Set Free's home base.
It's a rough part of town, which makes the challenge of overseeing ex-cons all the greater for Allanson and his "house man," Robert Watkins.
"We try to keep the street out of them from the time they get out of prison," Allanson said of his tenants, who pay a weekly rent of $100 for room and board and all the food they care to eat. The freezers and refrigerators are packed with food, part of a barter system for the work the men do at a local food bank ministry.
Currently, there are six men living in one of the townhouse duplexes, their neatly made twin beds two to a room. They work various jobs, from cooking to landscaping to tattooing. They are required to turn their paychecks over to Watkins, the house man, who subtracts the rent and puts the rest away for their savings.
The men rise each morning for devotional and attend church twice a week. Volunteer mentors and tutors make weekly visits. The days are carefully scheduled with work and lessons.
The house is immaculate but cozy, furnished with embroidered rugs and patterned sofas.
"It's not your typical halfway house," said Allanson, who credits his wife of 18 years, Liz, with the decorative touch. "We tried to make it as homey as possible. We feel like when a man comes out of prison and he's got a place like this, he's comfortable."
Watkins, 49, is the day-to-day overseer, the self-described "brother, friend, commander, chauffeur, minister and guide."
He ferries the men to their jobs in the ministry's van and gives them their marching orders for household chores.
"I know my role," Watkins said. "I've got a mandate from God. We've got to fight the good fight."
Like Allanson, Watkins spent decades of hard time behind bars, and with it gained the perspective he needs for handling his tenants.
"He knows the games they play, and they will run a game on you," Allanson said. "They think they can hold back that money and you won't know it. They feel like they can go out and smoke a little marijuana or drink a beer and not get detected."
Several have tried and failed to get through the Christian-based, one-year program since it began in August.
"They just walk off," Allanson said. "They decide our rules are too strict. And they are strict. Society's got a pretty strict set of rules, too. If you can't handle it here, you're not going to be able to handle it out on the streets."
'I like where I'm at'
Nate Wilson spent 20 years in prison for three burglaries he committed in 1986 in Ware County. He was released from Ware State Prison in December and has been at the Set Free house ever since.
"It's rough," the 43-year-old said of his adjustment to life in the outside world. "I ain't been out so long. But I like where I'm at."
Wilson said programs like Set Free are badly needed for many of Georgia's newly released ex-cons, who are hitting the streets with nothing but $25 and a prison ID at a rate of 350 per week.
"They need help," he said. "Maybe this can really change their lives. Help them get past what they did and get back under the Lord."
"I don't want to go back to none of them evil ways," Wilson said. Back in prison, he said, "a bunch of 'em still got that old way. But I feel like a bunch of 'em in the chain gangs can make it. If I can make it, they can."
Tommy Mashburn, 41, lived in a tent near railroad tracks in Chamblee and was "boosting," shoplifting items to sell, to support a crack cocaine addiction before his most recent stint in prison. He estimates he's been in and out of jails for 15 of the last 30 years for theft, check forgery and driving violations.
Mashburn wrote to Allanson while serving a recent 18-month sentence in Burrus Correctional Center in Forsyth. He was surprised when he got a prompt response. Last week, he moved in to the house in Monroe.
"I hope to get my life back, to re-establish myself, as a working man," Mashburn said. "I've been out of work for a while. Really, I've been in disarray for the last 15 or 20 years. I've been kind of lost out there."
Mashburn said the Christian-based teachings of Set Free appealed to him.
"It's something I felt in my heart I needed to do with my life," he said.
Set Free could grow
Set Free is starting small, with just a handful of employees, mostly volunteer. But Allanson is thinking big. He's looking to sign leases for more of the buildings in the complex, which sit unoccupied. He hopes one day to fill all seven.
He has 100 inmates awaiting release already pre-screened for the program, and would like to expand to other locations, including Forsyth and Hall counties.
He feels he can convince other communities of the program's worthiness. And while he'll accept those that have served time for violent crimes, he does not board sex offenders.
"I'm confident we can convince residents we're going to be OK," he said.
Allanson can quote chapter and verse the statistics about Georgia's huge prison population, now fifth-largest in the nation. He says keeping ex-cons away from the revolving door of incarceration benefits taxpayers, who pay $47 a day for each prison bed.
"If we can lower the recidivism rate by 1 percent, we can save taxpayers in this state $7 million," he said.
The budget for the nonprofit ministry's budget is $15,000 per month and is overseen by a board of directors. Most of the contributions come from individuals and churches. And while Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald is a big supporter of Allanson and his program, Allanson refuses to pursue state or federal grant money.
"That's because there are too many politically correct strings that are attached," Allanson said. "We are not going to set aside our Christian beliefs for a dollar."
Set Free board member David Smith of Gainesville, owner of sign-making company D-Signsmith, says Allanson's drive inspired him to get involved.
"He's an awesome man," Smith said. "I know the struggle that he had coming out of prison. It totally changed his life, and he wanted to help other people get past the pitfalls he had when he got out."
"I thought it was incredible of him to go back to where he was and try to help these men," Smith said. "They've been labeled and no one gives them a second chance, and like Tom, they've totally changed their lives."
Allanson said it can be hard for ex-cons to shake the stigma the public attaches to them.
"When someone gets out, they immediately think they can't change," Allanson said. "Just because somebody's committed a violent crime doesn't mean he's bad to the core from now on. If he's done his time, he deserves a second chance. I got a second chance."
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, (770) 718-3428
Originally published Sunday, February 25, 2007