Olivia Hensley was skeptical. Her probation officer had strongly advised her to attend a “call-in” session organized by Changing Together, an Asheville-based program that could help her get back on her feet following a robbery conviction.
“I think if I hadn’t been pregnant, I might not have gone,” she says.
But she did attend, albeit with low expectations, and heard people talk about how to avoid committing another crime, how to make something of oneself despite a troubled past. And when a single mother described how she’d rebuilt her life, it touched a nerve — and Hensley signed on.
Just 19 when she was with friends who committed an unarmed robbery, Hensley was convicted along with them and was ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution.
She was fortunate: Sentenced to probation, she served only 30 days in jail after falling behind in her payments. Still, Hensley saw little hope of ever paying off the debt, much less overcoming the stigma of having been convicted of a felony.
Today, Hensley, 25, is a shift manager at Bruegger’s Bagels on Merrimon Avenue. She has custody of her son and two daughters, and she’s looking forward to moving up in the company.
Changing Together is one of a growing number of crime deterrence programs aimed at helping felons avoid ending up back in prison. A project of The SPARC Network, a nonprofit with branches in Charlotte and Asheville, Changing Together works in partnership with local law enforcement.
Missy Reed, the program’s director, is a former probation officer, victim advocate and investigator for the public defender’s office in Durham. “This is not a quick fix,” she cautions. “It’s a long path. We work with people who, almost all of them, have violent felony convictions.”
Marcus Blair, 28, went to prison on a drug charge and doubted he would ever be able to shed the stigma of his past. He started with Changing Together about 14 months ago and was hired at Bruegger’s a month later.
“This is the first job I’ve ever stayed at,” he reveals. “They took a chance on me, and I appreciate that.” Also a shift manager, Blair, too, hopes to move up the ladder.
“It’s been rough,” he explains. “I had four daughters and no job.” But having people who believed in him — who would listen and then help him overcome obstacles — helped Blair start believing in himself.
“I think people deserve a second chance,” says store manager Tammie Zimmerman, giving Hensley a hug.
Across the country, “focused deterrence” programs are springing up, offering people society had labeled as hopeless a second chance. Many are modeled on Operation Ceasefire in Boston, which uses a multipronged approach to redirect the lives of violent offenders toward more productive paths.
In the early 2000s, notes Changing Together staffer Tim Splain, gang violence and shootings plagued Asheville. “In some neighborhoods, we saw a 400 percent increase in gun calls,” says Splain, a former Asheville police captain who’s now the director of domestic violence programs at Changing Together. “When you look at all the calls for service, you find that a very small percentage of people — 1 to 3 percent of your criminal population — drives the majority of violent crime. … We’re good at filling up prisons, but that’s not a good long-term solution.”
Instead, Changing Together gives participants a message of hope.
“We ask them not to commit any more violent crime, and then we offer to help them,” continues Splain. “It’s very stick-and-carrot: The violence has to stop, and we’re here to help you.”
Providing tangible assistance, stresses Reed, is a key to these programs’ success. “It’s hard to ask people to stop violent behavior and then send them out with a piece of paper with some phone numbers. You have to connect them to what they need.”
Changing Together helps men like Blair gain parenting skills as well as job skills — and an understanding that they have a stake in the future.
Research shows that stronger families make stronger communities, says Reed, and people who’ve committed violent crimes need to be reconnected to a community.
Growing up, however, many participants in focused deterrence programs had no adequate models for the behaviors needed to live in community, says Jackie Latek of The SPARC Network. “Some of the stories we hear are chilling. When you’re in a dark place, it’s important to have someone point you toward the light.”
Childhood trauma raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and permanently changes the brain, but research has shown that with training and effort, people can learn to compensate for those changes and alter their reactions to cortisol.
“Ours is not a culture that forgives easily,” Reed points out. “We’re just helping people understand that they can have another chance.”
Often, it involves teaching someone who’s never held a job how to behave in an interview, how to talk to co-workers and bosses, how to cope with work-related stress.
“You might believe that someone can flip burgers for a living, but McDonald’s won’t even hire some of our people,” Reed reveals. “And even after they’re hired, they have to function in that job.”
Some focused deterrence programs start before a violent offender leaves prison. Brent Bailey was an early graduate of RHA Health Services’ Project Re-entry, which helps people both before and after their release. He now runs the program and has worked with Changing Together, speaking at call-ins and sharing his own story.
“I am the population,” says Bailey. “I came out of prison in April 2004 after serving six years on cocaine trafficking charges. I worked a lot of low-wage jobs before I saw an ad for Project Re-entry.”
Today, he helps people coming out of prison find jobs. Although most are low-wage, they’re a foot in the door that, as Blair and Hensley have seen, can lead to higher pay and greater responsibility if the person is willing to work. And for those who don’t rise through the ranks with that particular employer, a solid work history can help them get a better job elsewhere.
One of Bailey’s clients is Lexie Wilkins, who started with Project Re-entry while still in prison on drug charges. “I told Brent I would come see him when I got out,” says Wilkins.
Despite having to live in homeless shelters for a time after his release, Wilkins hasn’t lost his determination to succeed. “I would apply for housing, and people would take my nonrefundable application fee and promise that my criminal record wouldn’t keep me from getting a place, but then I didn’t get the place.”
Eventually, he did find housing and was awarded custody of his 5-year-old daughter. But with an income of about $1,000 a month and a $750 monthly rent, he’s struggling as he looks for a job with better pay.
This year alone, notes Bailey, more than 900 people will be released from state prison in Buncombe County. Most will face similar situations, and unlike Wilkins, they probably won’t have a college degree.
“If we want people to make it, we can’t leave them to do it on their own,” Reed maintains. “This is not a problem that’s going to go away. … I see people being successful, and it’s great stuff.”
But without a helping hand, both Blair and Hensley believe they wouldn’t be where they are now.
“I had help, but I feel like I worked my way up,” says Blair. “I succeeded.”
Hensley, meanwhile, paints a darker picture. “If I hadn’t become pregnant and landed at that call-in, I’m sure I would be dead or in jail. Instead, I’m working and raising my children.”