Center hopes to transform lives of inmates

When Frederick Williams leaves the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility, he says he’ll be better prepared to reenter society than many of his peers in state prison.

“When I walked in here, they started to give me the tools I need,” said Williams. “Now I know I can walk out the door with more than $10, a bus ticket and good luck.”

The facility, run by New Jersey-based Community Education Centers, was dedicated Tuesday in Columbiana and will prepare state inmates for release.

CEC chairman John Clancy said the center should help reduce the number of repeat offenders in Alabama.

“What we like to do is take 6,000 of the worst residents your state can offer and turn them around,” said Clancy. “Our belief is we will not disappoint you.”

The center offers inmates counseling, classes and job training. They also provide treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

“We believe in people,” said Clancy. “We believe we can help a large percentage of people. Not everyone, but at least give us a shot. We believe we will produce some outstanding outcomes.”

Keith Hooper, a former resident at a similar center, said the support he received turned his life around.

“I’m not the same person,” said Keith Hooper, a former drug dealer and alum of CEC’s New Jersey facility. “I’m a father to my kids. I’m active in my community. My mother doesn’t worry about me any more.”

So far, CEC has invested more than $18 million in the center off Highway 70, transforming the old Elastic Corp. warehouse into the state-of-the-art facility.

It’s the first of its kind in Alabama, but not the last, according to Gov. Bob Riley.

“It makes no sense for us to continue what we have always done – grow our prison population,” said Riley. “This is a day we will look back on and wonder why we didn’t do this earlier.”

The governor believes the center could be a prototype for future facilities across the Southeast.

Columbiana Mayor Allan Lowe and several city council members went to New Jersey last year to tour the facility there before approving the one here.

Clancy and Riley said the facility would have a huge economic impact on Shelby County. The center employs more than 200 workers, who make between $40,000 and $80,000 a year.

“We are getting a great economic return,” said Riley.

But the biggest impact may come in the lives of inmates released back into society.

“I am somebody. I don’t want to be a liability anymore,” said Williams. “I want to be an asset.”