The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population; in North Carolina alone, according to the state Department of Correction, about 26,000 released prisoners return home each year — some of them to Asheville. All too often, they wind up back in prison again: Between 2004 and 2007, North Carolina’s recidivism rate was 41 percent. But even ex-convicts genuinely intent on starting over face an uphill battle.
Concern about this situation prompted a June 20 “Re-entry Roundtable” at the Asheville Culture Center on Short Coxe Avenue. Area residents joined representatives of nonprofits and local government to consider better ways to reintegrate newly released prisoners into the community.
Green Opportunities staffer Stephen Smith told the group that various obstacles make it hard for ex-cons to obtain such basics as stable housing and employment — key factors in keeping an ex-convict from returning to prison.
“Employers stigmatize someone having a felony or even a misdemeanor,” said Smith. “Sometimes, the information [the person leaving prison] receives is outdated: An organization they're told to contact doesn't even exist. If there's not a collaboration here, it's not going to be effective, because we don't know all the barriers they're facing. They don't know where to turn.”
Buncombe County, several attendees noted, has unusually good resources for ex-convicts, but often, the very people they’re intended to help don't know how to access them. Part of the intent of the roundtable was to bring together people from multiple agencies, so they can better coordinate their efforts.
In some cases, encouraging former prisoners to start their own business can be a way to break down the employment barrier, added Smith.
Shanda Jackson, who served five years in prison beginning at age 18, did just that. “I found out no one was going to hire me, so I decided I was going to do my own thing, because I'm well capable of that,” she revealed. Prison “won't stop you from owning your own business: The resources were there.”
It didn’t seem to matter to potential employers that she'd turned her life around, becoming a model prisoner while gaining job skills and education, said Jackson.
“That's not noted anywhere. The stigma was there, no matter what I did after,” she recalled, adding, “Who will see those skills? They didn't.”
Then and now
Olufemi Lewis, who's also worked with Asheville GO, never went to prison. But she said some misdemeanors dating back to her late teens and early 20s were enough to keep potential employers from hiring her, even after she'd earned a nursing degree at A-B Tech.
“They wouldn't hire me because of something that happened seven or eight years ago,” Lewis recalled. “I only had misdemeanors, and I was still being judged. I can't imagine how frustrating that would be for someone with a felony. Green Opportunities didn't see it like that: They saw the skills I had and how I could give back to the community.”
A lot of employers, though, aren't aware of the incentives the state offers to hire people leaving prison, noted Wendi Bowen of the Employment Security Commission. These include tax breaks and liability insurance.
“We try to reach out to employers, inform them about what's there,” she explained. “The stigma is the biggest thing we deal with; they think if you have a criminal record that you must be dishonest, that you must be a thief. They think you're a danger to their other employees, whatever the type of crime. Some of it is that insurance won't cover a former offender working for a company.”
But in fact, it's easier to end up in the prison system than many people believe, said Sylvia Farrington, who helps coordinate the JobLink program at A-B Tech.
“Post 9/11, many people aren't dropping out of school — they're being put out of school,” she pointed out. “You pull a false alarm, you get a felony for it. These are the types of steps that are being taken. Once you're out of school, it's a lot easier to get into prison. It's not just a matter of you wouldn't be here if you didn't just drop out of school.”
JobLink, she reported, provides a list of local employers willing to hire ex-felons.
Ex-offenders’ ability to find jobs is an essential part of the overall business picture, said James Lee, who works in the city of Asheville's Office of Economic Development. “It's an important piece: We're creating a larger business space.”
Deborah Johnson of RHA Health Services, an ex-offender who now works with inmates at the Buncombe County Jail, said she sees the problem from both sides. Summing up the problem, Johnson noted: “People see when you re-offend, but they see very little of when you do right. We have to let people know, ‘Hey, I made a mistake, I was wrong — but this is what I'm doing now, and it's different.’”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.