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Going Beyond The Walls

One former inmate in our area knows all too well how hard it can be to re-adjust to society after a stint in prison.

 “It’s beyond rough because there’s so many roadblocks in front of you to find a job,” the former inmate, who is 37, said. He spoke on the condition he just be identified by part of his name, Scott, fearing reprisals from co-workers. Such roadblocks can lead to repeat offenders, and another stay in prison, known as recidivism. The cycle can continue across generations.

That challenge of recidivism is getting fresh attention from Winston-Salem State University’s Center for Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM), which started last August and concentrates on researching barriers to opportunity in fragile communities. CSEM recently had Dr. Gregory Price, a noted economist at Morehouse College, speak here on the issue.

“There is social stigma associated with being an ex-offender, which makes access to legitimate opportunity upon re-entry difficult,” Price told CSEM in advance of his visit. “Because of this, recidivism becomes likely. For the public, this results in more resources being diverted toward incarceration ─ resources that could have better and more productive alternative uses.”

The local strategy for helping former offenders like Scott depends upon Project Re-Entry, Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries, other organizations and the state and local governments. The strategy begins with classes and counseling before the offenders are released and continues with support after release. The effort depends upon volunteers like Gayle Anderson, the former head of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, who helps Scott.

The relatively new Forsyth County Re-entry Council coordinates efforts. More of that coordination is needed, as well as more support for innovative programs, such as ones helping some ex-offenders set up their own businesses, and more support for re-entry programs in general.

Each month, more than 100 inmates are released from prisons and jails to Forsyth County, according to Rodney Stilwell, the senior chaplain of Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries. In North Carolina, 40 of those released inmates will be re-arrested within three years, on average. Stilwell and others are seeking to lower this rate (which is still below the national average of 68%.)  Stilwell’s agency helps men through its two-year-old Transition to Work program, a continuation of the ministry’s longstanding efforts to help released inmates.

Re-entry programs such as Transition to Work try to provide inmates with as much support as possible, realizing the first two to three months out are crucial. In addition to its own counseling and those of partner agencies, Transition to Work provides released inmates with a list of agencies that can help with them with counseling, legal aid, health care and other needs. Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries also requires participants in its program to be involved in a faith of their own choosing. “We want to build them up mentally and spiritually,” the Rev. Martin Lawson, the director of Transition to Work, said. “We want to build up the holistic person, including their families, so they will be ready to function in society.”

Constructive bonds

Scott met Gayle Anderson after she spoke to his Transition to Work class at the Forsyth Correctional Center in 2016.  He was finishing up his seven-year sentence for cocaine dealing in Guilford County, and asked Anderson for help. His goal: a job upon his release.

Anderson was receptive. Scott was preparing well for re-entry into the working world. He was on work release in addition to participating in the class. “A lot of people don’t want to do right when they’re in there or whatever,” Scott said. 

Scott did his full sentence, so he was not subject to parole upon his release. A few months after he got out and was working at a chicken plant, Anderson helped him get an interview at a higher-tech factory in Hickory that paid significantly more. Scott was as upfront about his criminal record as he was about his strong record at his current job. The factory hired him. Scott said he knew that drug dealing was wrong. He liked the money, he said, but it wasn’t worth doing time for and he doesn’t ever want to go back to prison. “After about four years in, I had the feeling of ‘I’m not doing this no more.’ I realized it ain’t worth it.”

Landing the job was just half the battle. Fortunately, Scott already had a car. Many people coming out of prison don’t, and basic transportation is a big hurdle. Transition to Work supplies them with city bus tickets in those first weeks, and also provides transportation with its own small buss.

As a former offender, Scott faced another longtime hurdle, that of finding a place to live. “I had to stay at a motel for two months, nobody would rent to me,” Scott said. “A lot of people get discouraged.”

Transition to Work helps its clients by providing them with housing financial assistance for the first month or two after their release, but Scott already had moved saved up and had family support.

Anderson helped Scott find an apartment. He’s adjusting now, but still worries, including about the opinions of his co-workers. Most don’t know he’s a former inmate. If they knew, Scott said, they might complain to his boss that he’s making more money than some of them and try to get his job. He’s making just over $20 an hour.

The economist who spoke here recently, Greg Price, has suggested in a paper written with three colleagues, Ex-Incarceree/Convict Status: Beneficial for Self Employment and Entrepreneurship?,  that some released inmates should be encouraged to start their own businesses as a means of re-entry because they tend to be greater risk-takers than average.  During a luncheon discussion with Price during his visit here, three former offenders agreed. They are Jerry Anderson of Impact Solutions of the Triad LLC, Tuger Boone of Beyond Measures personal fitness training and David Moore of Southside Rides.

“Whatever they did illegally, they didn’t care about people closing doors or anything,” Boone told C-SEM. “They did it with strength, they did with mind control, and they succeeded. Now on the flip side, with entrepreneurship, we’re going to manipulate positively.

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