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Beyond prison and parole, some former prison inmates in Santa Barbara County getting fresh starts

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KCLU
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A special graduation ceremony for some formerly incarcerated Santa Barbara County residents who have gone through a special re-entry program.

Graduation ceremonies honor some formerly incarcerated people who have completed a unique program helping them re-enter society.

He was a federal prosecutor, a noted consumer protection attorney, and a law professor. But, his life exploded in 1995.

"I ended up in prison for having killed someone," said Ken Donney. He stabbed his wife to death during an argument.

"I blacked out...the next thing I knew I was calling 9-1-1," said Donney. "Rather than make it even more than a tragic circus than it already was, I pled guilty to second-degree murder."

The man who helped put criminals behind bars found himself living with them.

Because he received a 15 years to life sentence, he didn’t know if he’d ever get out of prison…and even if he did…what would he do.

In 2021, 26 years later, Donney was finally released on parole. He was sent to a transition house, intended to help prepare him for his return to society. He was introduced to the Day Reporting Centers. It’s a 12-year-old program in Santa Barbara County intended to help parolees do everything from learning how to use a computer, to getting jobs.

"Our program is designed to be a bridge for those returning into the community," said Carolyn Payne, the Program Director for Santa Barbara County’s Day Reporting Centers. They’re run by a non-profit agency called Community Solutions.

"The re-entry process can be difficult, and there can be a lot of barriers," said Payne.

The centers provide everything from computer skills training to help with creating a resume.

There are about 30 parolees in the program in southern Santa Barbara County, and more than 75 in the northern part of the County.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Bill Brown says the program is a key element in the county’s efforts to help parolees start new lives, instead of becoming repeat offenders.

"It really provides what has been missing for many years for certain incarcerated people who are released from prison, or released from jail," said Brown. "It's having a support system. Some have been there for a few years, but others 30 years or more, and the world can be a bewildering experience."

This week is a big week for some of the former state prison inmates. Family and friends are gathering for commencement ceremonies for graduates of the reentry programs.

At the Santa Barbara event, Donney says the program was a much greater help than he expected.

Donney’s parole was completed in March of this year. He already has a job, with a Santa Barbara think tank, where he can put his legal background to work. He feels like he’s getting a new start in life.

"Every day, every night, I'm smiling," said Donney.

Brown says the Day Reporting Center Program doesn’t work for everyone…he’s the first to admit that’s just unrealistic. But, he says the 12-year-old program has lots of success stories, and says in some cases graduates have returned to help others trying to cope with a return to society after years, and sometimes decades behind bars.