By LEE JOHNSON | Nashville Voice
When James Settles reflects on his life 30 years ago, and where he is now, the 55-year-old can’t help but shout, “Glory!”
Settles created a transitional living program in Nashville, Tennessee called Aphesis House. In Greek, aphesis means, “to let go, or forgive.”
“No one is beyond redemption, regardless of the nature or scope of mistakes they have made in the past,” said Settles, who let go of his criminal lifestyle before it was too late.
Currently, Aphesis is a leader in transitional housing services in Middle Tennessee and has published materials on how to start effective recovery programs, including a book by Settles on starting and managing a transitional house.
Aphesis has a success rate of over 80 percent and has helped more than 800 men find their way back to society.
“God is using Aphesis House to provide the kind of facility where men can get the life skills they need to live a better life,” Settles said. “For that, I say, glory!”
Supporters of transitional living programs like Aphesis say they play a vital role in reducing recidivism. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people imprisoned.
One study by the U.S. Department of Justice tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that within three years of release, about two-thirds, or 68 percent, of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years, 77 percent were rearrested, the study found.
However, the federal government is providing help to programs like Aphesis House to address the incarceration problem.
The sweeping criminal justice reform bill that passed Congress in December offers faith-based programs—Aphesis has a faith-based component—increased opportunities to minister to inmates.
The First Step Act lists faith-based programs as an option for inmates who want to earn time off their sentences by preparing for a productive life after prison.
Tennessee State Representative Raumesh Akbari, a staunch supporter of prison reform, said transitional living programs give ex-felons a better chance of staying out of prison by providing them with resources like housing, transportation, and possible employment.
“A lot of times when people are released from the prison system they’re given a bus ticket, a bag of their belongings, and they’re expected to just jump right in,” Akbari said. “I think it’s crucial to bridge that gap from incarceration to back to being a part of society.”
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Settles spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. His longest stint was in 1986 when he was sentenced to 10 years after being convicted of attempted murder and illegal drug possession.
One day, while sitting in his 6 by 8 feet cell at the Turney Center Prison in Only, Tennessee, Settles thought about the past few years of his life.
“For the first time, I began to examine myself,” said Settles, who was ironically a victim of the drugs he sold. “I thought I had it all – money, drugs, cars, women at my beck and call. I never stopped to think that my fast life could so abruptly end, with me in prison – or worse.“
That day, the 27th of his 10-year sentence, Settles fell on his knees, and with tears in his eyes, cried out to the Higher Power he’d heard his mother talk about.
“Lord, I don’t know any more about You than what my mother always talked about,” Settles said. “But if You are real, I’m asking You to come into my life and help me not to use drugs again.”
When he stood up, Settles said he felt as if a heavy load had been lifted off his shoulders.
“For the first time in my life, I could see beyond the prison bars,” he recalled. “I saw a future.”
Settles adopted a new mindset.
Not only did he stop using drugs, but he vowed to stop selling them. And he stuck by that when he was finally released after serving a shorter sentence of eight years.
He was sent to a halfway house in Nashville where he spent 90 days before becoming the facility’s manager; a position he would hold for two years.
During that time, he met a woman named Renee and the two began dating. Settles also started a successful auto detailing business. But that wasn’t the only success he was having. His relationship with Renee got serious, to the point they were considering marriage.
Settles said the money he was making from his business allowed him to make a down payment on a house he and Renee had picked out.
They closed on the house the morning of June 28, 1996; had a get together at the house that afternoon to celebrate with family and friends; then got married in the home that evening.
Also living in the house would be Renee’s 13-year-old son, Lance, from a previous marriage, and Marico, Settles’ 16-year-old son.
“That night, as we all moved into our new home, I knew for certain the Lord had introduced me to a new life as he blessed me with a new start,” Settles said. “He really made a difference in my life. That’s why I always say, glory!”
With that new start, recalled Settles, would also come a new line of work.
“Even though I had abandoned a life of crime and violence and was living responsibly, I felt restless,” Settles said. “One night (in a dream), God reminded me of the transformation I made while in prison and of the success He had given me at the halfway house after leaving prison.
“God clearly showed me that these things happened for a purpose,” he continued. “I realized that just like God had helped me, He wanted me to help others.”
That’s when he got the idea for Aphesis House, a transitional living program that would not only help ex-felons acclimate to society but also help men battling addiction and homelessness.
Settles had been speaking in the community about his desire to start Aphesis, and a prayer was answered in 2003 when a family donated a home, allowing him to open his first halfway house.
Over the next 11 years, Aphesis grew from that single home, which could provide space for four men at a time, to operating four facilities across Nashville and serving up to 28 men at once.
“James’ passion for Aphesis is contagious,” said Renee, who has a degree in social work and works tirelessly to help support the program. “I saw how passionate and how dedicated he was, and I latched onto it.”
One of those men is Tim Holt, who has been living a successful life since leaving Aphesis 11 years ago. Holt said Aphesis’ relapse prevention program and its behavior modification classes were particularly helpful in changing his lifestyle.
“Aphesis House helped me to grow into the man I am today,” said Holt, who is now married and owns a house. “I’m blessed.”
Whether it’s on the phone in his 10 by 13 feet office, or meeting with community and business leaders, Settles is busy making connections that he hopes will allow Aphesis to help even more men.
The program is currently seeking funding to build sort of a one-stop facility that will provide more housing, and also set up an apprenticeship program that will give ex-felons training in fields like carpentry and electrical wiring.
For more information about Aphesis House, visit: www.aphesishouse.org.