- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) - “Raise your hand if you don’t have anyone in your family — or any friends or if you’re not impacted in any way — by someone who has been to prison or been convicted of a felony.”

Brian Gray said he begins many of his presentations this way when speaking to community groups.

Gray is supervising U.S. probation officer in Cape Girardeau and spends much of his time trying to help people being released from prison re-enter society.

In Cape Girardeau, Scott, Perry and Bollinger counties, 24 inmates were released from federal prisons in 2014 and 73 people are on federal supervision in those counties, Gray said. Each year in Missouri, about 20,000 inmates are released back into their communities, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

A report from the Missouri Department of Corrections on the supervised offender population for fiscal year 2014 says 24,600 people on probation or parole in Missouri were unemployed as of June 30. That number is down from fiscal 2013’s report, which found 26,563 people on probation or parole were unemployed as of June 30, 2013.

“The reality is everyone knows someone or has someone in their family, and so it kind of hits home,” Gray said. “It kind of makes people realize, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t shun these people. They’re part of our community and part of our families.”

Gray also rides a motorcycle, which he admits probably has something to do with the concept for Bikers for Re-Entry, an annual event that raises money to help get former inmates back on their feet.

Several years ago, the Community Caring Council, a provider for re-entry and other social services in the area, lost a grant. In brainstorming about how to fulfill that need, the local Missouri Re-Entry Process group, the idea for Bikers for Re-Entry was born.

“And ironically we were able to raise the same amount of money as the grant that they had lost, about $3,000,” Gray said.

The scavenger-hunt style event in August sent bikers through the Southeast Missouri counties served by the Community Caring Council — Cape Girardeau, Perry and Bollinger — to collect photos at historic sites such as Bollinger Mill, the Massey House in Marble Hill and the Veterans memorial in Perryville.

“Given our population, we didn’t want to go to tavern to tavern to tavern, which is what poker runs a lot of times do,” Gray said. “So we made a decision that we were going to just stay on the positive side.”

The event, which drew about 40 riders, ended at Lawless Harley-Davidson in Scott City, one of the event’s sponsors. No alcoholic beverages were served, only donated refreshments of soda and water.

Since the funds raised were first extended in November, the Community Caring Council has been able to help about 20 people being released from prison get birth certificates, personal identification and HiSET testing, a high school equivalency test alternative to the GED test.

The concept of maintaining freedom means a lot to artist Melvin Stuckey, the Southeast Missourian (http://bit.ly/1GEoqTE ) reports.

“That’s the main thing,” Stuckey said. So when Gray asked Stuckey whether he was interested in creating a piece of original artwork for the Bikers for Re-Entry event, Stuckey jumped at the chance.

The resulting painting was titled “Don’t Look Back” and depicts a man on a motorcycle driving away from a prison. Stuckey donated half the proceeds to the Community Caring Council to help people with re-entry. Sales of prints before, during and after the Bikers for Re-Entry event raised hundreds of dollars for the cause.

Stuckey, of St. Louis, is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was convicted on drug charges in 1993 and sentenced to 18 years. While serving time in the Memphis Federal Correctional Institute, he was reminded of his interest in art that came to him in middle school.

Stuckey eventually was transferred to the prison in Greenville, Illinois, where he met a Colombian man who painted portraits in pastel. He and the man worked out a deal — he would help Stuckey with portraits if Stuckey would be his personal trainer — another interest of Stuckey’s from his younger days.

Stuckey saw art as a new beginning. The biography on his website, melvinstuckey.weebly.com, says he painted every day, initially using art for recreation.

In 2005, he received his first portrait commission.

In 2008, he was discharged early from prison on “good time” credit. According to famm.org, federal prisoners can earn up to 54 days off their sentences each year for following prison rules and behaving well.

Within two weeks of his release, Stuckey was commissioned to do a mural for a St. Louis body shop. The task might have been daunting for some — Stuckey said he had never used acrylic paints before or painted such a large piece. But he jumped right in, using scaffolding to work on the 80-by-40-foot creation.

Stuckey was certified as a personal trainer through a California company in 2009, intending to train as a means of earning money while working toward his goal of being able to do art full time, and completed supervised release July 23, 2013, with no infractions.

But he’s had trouble being hired at a gym, being told he didn’t have the right body type or that his certification wasn’t properly accredited. He was hired at a gym in Clayton, Missouri, but was let go “for no reason,” he said. Others tried to convince him to move to California, where they said he would have better opportunities. He also considered a move to Cape Girardeau, but decided he didn’t want to leave St. Louis, where his mother has terminal cancer.

But Stuckey isn’t bitter about not finding a training job. Instead, he looks at it as a blessing.

“God has blessed me with a talent, and I’m able to really focus on it, you know? I could’ve got so soaked up into the training world I wouldn’t have had time to really paint.”

In Stuckey’s opinion, inmates should be able to use the experience they gain doing jobs for Unicor — a program in federal prisons that provides jobs, training and development for inmates — to help them find work after they get out of jail.

“Guys in there are working eight-hour jobs, and they’re used to doing stuff in assembly lines,” he said, adding they should be able to put that experience on job applications at companies such as General Motors. “They’d make a lot more money.”

But, Stuckey said, they often can’t find work because prospective employers concentrate on the fact they’ve been to prison.

In the meantime, Stuckey is doing what he can to help and staying positive. He is working on a special project for the probation office, but didn’t have any details to divulge yet.

The next Bikers for Re-Entry ride is Oct. 3. For more information on the ride, visit bikers4reentry.webs.com.

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Information from: Southeast Missourian, http://www.semissourian.com

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