Tonja Fultz: ‘Prison was the best thing that happened to me’

March 15
10:38 2018

By Busta Brown

“Just like most women in prison, its bad relationships and making poor choices that lead me to incarceration.”

Tonja Fultz went on to say that prison was the best thing that happened to her, “because it made me a better person.” Fultz was incarcerated for three years within the South Carolina Department of Corrections. “After a year and a half, I found my peace; I learned to live with it. I decided to look at how did I get here, and now what I’m going to do.”

I asked Tonja what was the first thing that came to her mind when the judge gave her the three-year sentence. “I was shocked, but then I started thinking about my kids, who were 8 and 10 when I got sentenced. I thought about how they are going to eat, get to school.” She was very afraid that her children would forget who she was.

I asked Fultz what she felt when saw and heard the cell doors shut. “I said to myself, I’m going to die in here. This is it for me. Then they gave me two flat sheets. I’m thinking, ‘What I am going to do with these.’ My roommate had to show me how to do it. It was like going to a foreign country.”

Tonja said one of the best lessons was learning to say no. I joked, asking if she was strong enough to say no to the type of men she’s dated in the past. “Yes! I learned to say no. I also learned to stand up for myself, and be more independent. As I said early, it was the best thing that happened to me.”

While incarcerated, her ex-husband had custody of the children. “I saw them once in three years, and only communicated with them through writing.” I asked if was her choice to see them once, and she said no. “I did not know if he would let them have the letters. When I got out and saw them for the first time; they had every letter.”

After leaving the South Carolina Department of Corrections, she came to Project Re-Entry, a program that assists former offenders returning to the community after serving prison sentences in avoiding the potential pitfalls associated with life after incarceration. The mission of the program is to improve the reintegration of ex-offenders, reduce criminal justice cost, and increase public safety.

Tonja worked with the program prior to her release, with a group-based curriculum that provides valuable information, education, and pre-release sessions that allow Project Re-Entry staff to build trust and familiarity with inmates as they attempt to reconnect with the “outside” world.

Tonja was offered a position with Project Re-entry in 2007.  Since joining Project Reentry as a full-time staff member, Tonja has become one of the program’s strongest advocates for incarcerated parents, their children and the caregivers.

Tonja has developed a new division of Project Re-entry: “Project Family,” which provides and/or facilitates direct services that support customized, child-centered reunification plans for families with criminal-justice involved parents.

“I help teach how to co-parent in a positive way. It’s important for the parent that’s incarcerated to understand what it’s like to be a parent on the outside, and vice versa. So we prepare them how to work together in prison and when they get out.”

Fultz’ personal experience is the reason she has the passion and heart needed to make a program such as Project Family real, honest and fair. She said the children play a big part in shaping the program. “If we can help the children, our incarceration rate is gonna go down because the children won’t follow in their footsteps. We must get both parents to think about the best interest for the kids.”

More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent and approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Project Family helps find programs to help feed and find housing for children of an incarcerated parent, and the caregiver as well.

You can see more of my interview with Tonja Fultz and find out more info about this much needed program. Go to our YouTube channel @ Winstonsalem Chronicle.


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