- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - Joel Whiteside sat in a Cowlitz County courtroom 15 years ago, weeping as he was about to be sentenced for violently assaulting two teenage boys near R.A. Long High School.

“I regret everything about that day,” Whiteside told the court.

He served 28 months in prison and was charged as an adult, although he was only 17, but he still wasn’t ready to change. He was sentenced to three more years in prison in 2008 for violating a no contact order. It was during that last stint behind bars that Whiteside decided to reform.

“I decided my old way of living wasn’t going to work anymore,” said Whiteside, a 33-year-old who lives in Longview.

Whiteside says he’s been drug-free for six years and works as a machinist at Loron, a Kelso firm. Now he wants to help other felons reform and stay out of prison.

In August, he launched a nonprofit that will guide felons returning to Cowlitz County after they finish their jail sentences and especially after they are released from state prison. Free of charge, the group of volunteers plans to help former inmates obtain drivers licenses, help get custody of their children, find housing and employment and enroll in school.

Several of his board members also have spent time in prison, and their goal is to reduce recidivism by sharing their experiences and giving newly freed convicts someone they can relate to. Hence the group’s name: Been There, Done That.

“It’s essential when people can relate to someone that they’ve been there, done that. It gives hope that (reform) is possible,” Whiteside said.

Many factors contribute to recidivism. Whiteside emphasized the stigma of a criminal history and the lack of assistance among the factors that make it difficult for convicted felons to stay crime-free.

Between 70 and 80 percent of the inmates released from the Cowlitz County jail end up reoffending, said Cowlitz County Corrections program manager Chad Williams. Whiteside’s program, Williams said, could save taxpayers money if it reduces the number who reoffend.

Been There, Done That starts contacting prisoners several months before their release. It’s now working with three inmates nearing the end of their sentences and another who has recently re-entered society. Whiteside said he hopes to help 20 and 35 people in the organization’s first year.

Nicole Brooks, chief operator and finance officer at the Drugs and Alcohol Prevention Center, said there’s a big need for Whiteside’s group.

“The resources for people in our community who really want to change are next to none. They want to do better, but they don’t know how. Joel’s vision is the how,” Brooks said, who is also the group’s secretary and treasurer.

Whiteside said the group only will help inmates it considers ready to get sober and willing to become productive members of society. Before they are released, incarcerated individuals are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their vocational and educational background, housing and parenting needs and employment history. They also must answer two essay questions about why they want to change their lives.

Abbot Amos, the group’s vice president, said he knows from experience about the value of post-prison assistance. He did prison time and was addicted to drugs. When he was released, he got into an inpatient drug treatment program in 2009, where a friend named Nick Crapser guided him into re-entry, he said.

“Not everyone will have a person like I did to reach out to me,” said Abott, 28 of Longview. “I want to give some hope to those who’ve struggled with drugs and helped change their lives.”

Crapser, 38, president of Been There, Done That, said he battled addiction problems of his own in his 20s and has a passion for helping the agency.

“I believe at my very core in the cause. . There’s a huge gap between jail and prison and finding something good to do in their lives,” Crapser said.

Counseling ex-cons is nothing new to Whiteside. He did so while serving time himself at the Cedar Creek’s Correction’s Center’ in Thurston County.

“Joel was a model inmate. He was recruiting folks to get help and to get clean. He was a mentor. I didn’t know the addict Joel, said Kim Goreau, community partnership coordinator for Cedar Creek.

Even before launching the non-profit, Whiteside helped others who were re-entering society after serving time in prison. One of them was Shane Rich, 31, of Kelso, who said Whiteside guided him after his release a year ago.

“The mentorship hasn’t ended just because I’ve had success. This mentorship will continue to grow, and I’m going to continue to use it to keep me on the path that I’m on.”

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Information from: The Daily News, https://www.tdn.com

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