Greenville minister Jerry Blassingame was stunned 12 years ago when a retailer rejected him for a seasonal job after checking his criminal record.
A decade earlier, at age 27, Blassingame had been convicted of selling cocaine for a second time.
He had served his time and, after getting out of prison, had launched a ministry to help ex-offenders.
He had also obtained a pardon from the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services. It restored his right to vote, but, unbeknownst to him at the time, it had not washed the felony convictions from his record.
After learning that his past mistakes still followed him, Blassingame joined efforts to change South Carolina law and give former convicts more opportunities to have crimes expunged from their records. He traveled to Columbia three times to testify on behalf of one expungement proposal.
After more than a decade, however, he’s still waiting for a bill to pass.
Blassingame says he wants to change the law not just for himself but for the former prisoners he helps through his Greenville-based ministry, Soteria Community Development Corp.
It operates a 12-bed facility in Travelers Rest for men re-entering society after serving time in prison.
Blassingame said the ministry begins working with its clients before they leave prison and provides them with a range of services, including job training, financial education, and mentoring.
In addition to being executive director of Soteria, Blassingame pastors a small congregation where he says former prisoners can feel comfortable.
Blassingame says he’s living proof that people convicted of serious crimes can become productive members of society.
“I’ve poured my heart into people’s lives, and they have changed,” he said. “People thought I couldn’t change.”
The 50-year-old Greenville native became a Christian after getting a 20-year sentence in 1995. He came up with the plan for his ministry while still in prison.
His former wife and mother of one of his six children filed for divorce while he was serving time in McCormick Correctional Institution.
Blassingame married his current wife, Stephanie Blassingame, while still behind bars.
He made parole in March 1999 after serving just 3 1/2 years of his 20-year sentence. The minister considers his early release a “miracle,” since he had violated the terms of his parole after his first cocaine conviction.
“I was really not supposed to go up at that time,” he said.
After leaving prison, Blassingame had planned to finish a two-year degree in architectural engineering that he had previously started at Greenville Tech and go on to Clemson University for a four-year degree in architecture. He dropped the plan, however, after realizing that he wasn’t eligible for a license to practice architecture because of his convictions.
Later, he got a certificate in correctional ministries from Wheaton College in Illinois, with an emphasis on re-entry.
He also completed a yearlong leadership training program offered by JustLeadershipUSA, a New York nonprofit organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. prison population in half.
Blassingame says he supports a bill backed by the Greenville Chamber to expand expungement opportunities, even though it wouldn’t cover someone with drug-dealing convictions such as himself.
“Let’s get something passed,” he said. “We can go back in a year or two years and get a little more.”