Ned Barnett

Barnett: Easing the path from prison to freedom

The three woman sat around the conference room table at different points on the compass, each trying to find her way home.

It wasn’t a return to a former home they’re seeking. What they’re seeking is a place that will become home, a place to live, a place where there is work to support them, a place where they can thrive on their own.

All three were released from state prison this year. Now they’re making, fitfully, the passage back into society. How well they do matters not only to them, but to the society they seek to rejoin. For these three are part of a great tide of prisoners being released as the United States shifts away from its mass incarceration policies of recent decades.

The women in a conference room at The News & Observer asked to be identified by only their first names. They were Amanda, 39, who served 16 years for the murder of her boyfriend; Shannon, 45, who served seven years for trafficking in prescription drugs; and Joyce, 48, a woman who has struggled with drugs and has served two prison terms, the latest being four years for robbery with a dangerous weapon.

The women had different stories but common problems. No credit. Little money. A hard time getting a car or finding a adequate public transportation. A lack of housing where landlords will accept them. Few or no family ties. And the stigma of having served time. Many job and housing opportunities evaporate after they acknowledge on an application that they have been convicted of a felony.

“I guess they feel like if she did it time, she’ll do it again,” Shannon said. “Everybody doesn't have that mentality. Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I’ve done my time. No, I do not want to go back. My thing is you do what is right, live my life to the best of my ability and try to stay positive.”

Along with the practical problems of reentry, there’s the disorienting feeling of going from a regimented, isolated prison environment into a free, fast-changing world. Amanda went to by a cell phone as soon as she got out, but after 16 years away she grew so bewildered as the saleswoman asked her about phone options that she broke down in tears.

Joyce has the added complication of resisting a fall back into drug use and trying to find housing and work with a criminal record lengthened by multiple drug-related charges. “I struggle to stay clean,” she said. “When you are a felon and recovering drug addict, its like double trouble.”

Whether these and other former prisoners make the transitions back to stable lives will decide whether the nation’s move away from mass incarceration can be sustained. In North Carolina, about 40 percent of released prisons are re-arrested within two years and about 20 percent are sent back to prison.

People who work with released prisoners say the recidivism rate does not mean a high percentage of offenders are incorrigible. It means that government and nonprofit programs designed to guide and assist former prisoners are often fractured and underfunded and unable to offset the challenges and frustrations former prisoners face.

“If you make it hard to do the right thing, you make it easy to do what’s wrong,” said Dennis Gaddy, who assists former prisoners at the Raleigh-based nonprofit Community Success Initiative.

Gaddy said that the reentry process for ex-offenders is improving as the wave of returning prisoners grows. A key step has been the creation of “re-entry councils” a pilot project overseen by the state Department of Public Safety.

Amanda, Shannon and Joyce said more help with housing and employment would ease their path back to a regular life. They also said volunteers and mentors who work with them in prison should be given a means to work with them as they adjust to freedom. Sometimes they, they said, what they need most someone they know and can call.

Those who’ve paid their debt to society should get more help rejoining it.

Barnett 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver