MORGAN COUNTY, Tenn. — In Tennessee, roughly 95 percent of state prisoners will be released back into society. Many of them will struggle with housing, transportation and employment.
But Josh Smith, a former inmate turned entrepreneur, said it doesn't have to be that way.
"Our community is investing in prisons and education," he said. "People need to understand what's going on in these in these places."
On Tuesday, he invited community stakeholders to witness the transformations firsthand at Morgan County Correctional Complex.
The prison now boasts a number of programs, including education, vocational training and work experience.
"A transformative environment. That's what we need," Smith said. "They're gonna be our neighbors. What neighbors do we want?"
Former business owner Richard Cansoli was one of Smith's guests on Tuesday. Nine inmates shared how the Morgan Co. facility had helped rehabilitate them.
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"They are all just like us. It's just one or two or three simple mistakes that are really caused that," Cansoli said. "[This experience has] been transformational, to be honest."
Cansoli said he intends to write some of the inmates and encourage them to continue the rehabilitative work they talked about.
"Coming on a tour, being able to see the prisons, learn about those programs, it gives them some of the knowledge base that they need to have to be able to make some of those changes," Smith said.
He hopes the inmate testimonies and firsthand look will inspire people like State Rep. Sam McKenzie (D-Knoxville) to bring change at the state level.
"We need them to have a skill, have a passion, have a calmness about them to be quite honest and have remorse for what they've done," McKenzie said. "What we want to do is correct."
Smith spent five years in federal prison on drug charges. He later founded the 4th Purpose Foundation, which advocates for transformation inside prison.
He also serves on Gov. Bill Lee's criminal justice reform task force.