Former inmates tell their stories at Oak Hill Collaborative in effort to help others

By Sean Barron


Not long ago, Charitey Riggs served in the Army Reserve and was in college, but a few poor decisions temporarily derailed her plans – and easily could have ended her life.

“They [nearly] took my life; they almost killed me,” the 22-year-old Salem woman said, referring to her drug addiction that led to her having served 16 months on theft and forgery charges at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.

Fifteen months after her release, however, Riggs is contemplating returning to college and is working at two restaurants in Columbiana County. But perhaps most important for her, she is using her hardships and triumphs to help other inmates across the state.

Riggs was among those who shared their stories during Thursday’s HOPE Channel Returns program at Oak Hill Collaborative Inc., 507 Oak Hill Ave., on the South Side.

United Returning Citizens, a nonprofit, grass-roots organization that helps those released from prison get readjusted to being in society, hosted the seven-hour gathering.

The event was to allow former inmates and their families to discuss their experiences on film via the HOPE (Helping Ohio Prisoners Excel) Channel and give encouragement to those who are incarcerated, noted Dionne Dowdy, URC’s executive director.

The channel is a 24-hour TV station run by a crew of inmates from the Grafton Correctional Institution in Lorain County. Programming airs throughout the state’s prison system and offers, among other things, information regarding resources, programs and efforts to reintegrate into society those who are incarcerated.

Rodney Austin and Steve Greener, both of whom are inmates at Grafton and are with the HOPE Channel, conducted and filmed the interviews during Thursday’s program.

Riggs said she regrets not having taken advantage of offerings in prison. Now, however, she’s committed to using her difficulties to encourage and give strength to others, she added.

“I want to save somebody’s life with my story one day. The days I struggle the most are when I’m not helping people,” said Riggs, whose long-term goals include running a horse ranch to help children on the autism spectrum.

Beginning in his teen years, drugs and alcohol became a major part of James Burnett’s life. That lifestyle led to being kicked out of school, stealing money from family members and serving time at the Mansfield and Chillicothe Correctional institutions.

“Every day was a struggle to get high,” recalled Burnett, who was released last month from CCI and told the HOPE Channel he’s working to turn his life around.

To that end, Burnett is in a 12-step program, has a supportive network of family and friends, receives services at Turning Point Counseling and is trying to find a job, he continued, adding that he wants to help others who are dealing with similar struggles.

“Take things one day at a time. Don’t put too much on your plate,” Burnett advised, adding that he believes in God and is dedicated to staying sober.

Also devoted to living a drug- and alcohol-free life is Robert Vogt of Salem, who served 35 months in a North Carolina prison after having been convicted of trafficking in cocaine.

Vogt recalled having taken advantage of various programs and classes while incarcerated. Even after being released, it’s critical to first change one’s thinking and behavior to avoid slipping back into making destructive choices, said Vogt, who serves as a URC program director.

Austin, who interviewed several former inmates, noted that many prisoners also suffer from mental-health problems and continue to struggle after being released.

On the other hand, though, being incarcerated can be positive because it can encourage someone to get away from drugs and alcohol, he continued.

It’s also important for society to realize that even though the inmates made poor decisions, they still can be productive and hard-working if given a chance and the proper tools, Austin added.

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