GAME-CHANGING TURNOVER

A former athlete helps others transition from prison to society

By AMANDA MERRICK

By day, Toren Gordon was a good student and football player at Western Carolina University. “But at night I was selling drugs. I was drinking alcohol, and I was carrying a weapon,” said Gordon, who played for the North Gaston High Wildcats before college.

Toren Gordon, who went from college football player to prison
inmate, stands outside the Gaston County home where he helps
convicted felons transition into society.

In December 2001, a fight broke out at a nightclub in Maggie Valley. Some people, including Gordon, started shooting, and a 29-year-old Asheville man was shot and died. Gordon was charged with second-degree murder. He was one semester short of finishing college. “Then I was sitting in the Haywood County jail under a $500,000 bond,” Gordon said.

In May 2002, Gordon was sentenced to six-and-three-quarters years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. While in prison, Gordon began corresponding with Friendship Christian Church Bishop John McCullough. Gordon asked McCullough what services were available once he finished his prison sentence. “There weren’t very many, if any, in Gaston County,” said Friendship Christian Church Elder Justin Ross.

Gordon was released from prison in 2007, and since July 2009 has been director of Life Bridge, a program that assists men released from prison with the resources they need to get a job, be self-sufficient and avoid a life behind bars.

At Life Bridge, an initiative of community development corporation Fresh Start of Gaston County, men receive a place to stay, transportation, clothing, food, mentoring and individual services. Four men stay at the home, which opened in August 2009.

“The first 30 days is the most intense part of it,” Gordon said. “The first month out is so important.” During that month, residents can receive phone calls only from family as they concentrate on finding a job. “We’re making our communities in the county safer when we provide a man who has a criminal history a place to lay his head,” Gordon said.

Residents stay from six to nine months and can be approved for an extension depending on circumstances. Lloyd Ulrich, released from the Charlotte Correctional Center in November 2009, is among the men who have lived at the Life Bridge home. Ulrich learned about the program while incarcerated, applied and was approved.

“People are scared to death of felons,” said Ulrich, who was convicted of obtaining a checking account by false pretenses. Now his goal is to save enough money to move back to Florida, where he’s originally from and where he has family.

The group prefers to help men ages 18 to 34 but will take applications from those who don’t fit that age range. Life Bridge will not accept sex offenders because the community has a lot of young people and a day care, Ross said.

Rule violations aren’t tolerated and are addressed as soon as they occur. There are no second chances. “You’re out and it’s done,” Gordon said.

Life Bridge’s goal is to reduce the recidivism rate in Gaston County by at least 50 percent. “It is realistic to be able to do that,” Ross said. “But if there isn’t anything for these men to do, they will do what comes naturally and they will do what comes easily.” That’s why the group needs community support, they say.

It costs an average of $75 a day to house a prisoner in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Correction. “We can house him for $50 or maybe $45,” Gordon said. “The thing is, if they go into the prison system, it is going to be at the expense of you.”

The organization runs on private funds, grants and donations, including contributions from Friendship Christian Church when needed, Ross said.

In the future, Life Bridge plans to reach 115 men through a navigation program, a type of case management for men who have a place to stay but need help finding a job and getting assistance. They hope to have more houses where 16 to 32 men can reside.

Life Bridge also recently started a cleaning and lawn-care business specializing in vacant properties that has successfully employed program participants. “Its primary purpose is to assist the men who are in transition with self-esteem and on-the-job professionalism,” said Gordon, who married and found work while incarcerated. “Employment is a great recidivism reducer, and we are now able to do just that. In our first year of operation, we have had only one of 12 return to prison.”

Life Bridge hopes it can work with others wanting to rehabilitate ex-prisoners. Instead of starting up another group, Gordon hopes people will consider partnering with Life Bridge. “We would do so much more together than standing alone,” Gordon said.

For more information or to contribute to Life Bridge, contact director Toren Gordon at 704.853.0977.

Reprinted in edited format with permission of The Gaston Gazette.