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Seeking Safety: What keeps hundreds of released inmates from committing more crimes in Fayetteville?

Project Re-entry is an important tool in crime reduction because evidence shows that former inmates who are able to build successful lives outside prison are much less likely to commit crimes again.

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Gordon Simspon
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Paul Mitchell walked out of Forsyth Correctional Center late last month with the shirt on his back and the prospect of a job.

Days earlier, Mitchell had graduated from Project Re-entry, a 16-week program that teaches people in some North Carolina prisons how to find work and avoid landing back behind bars.

Within 24 business hours of a prisoner's release in Forsyth County, a representative of Project Re-entry will meet with him to offer encouragement and help make sure he has what he needs to make it on the outside.

Project Re-entry is one of the most successful programs of its type in the country. And that makes it an important tool in crime reduction because evidence shows that former inmates who are able to build successful lives outside prison are much less likely to commit crimes again.

The success in Forsyth County, where Winston-Salem is the county seat, stands in contrast to Cumberland County and Fayetteville, where many inmates leave prison with no place to go, no prospects for work, and few and uncoordinated resources to help them.

But just over a couple of hours away, Project Re-entry is so successful that the National Criminal Justice Association recognized it as the U.S. Southern Region's Outstanding Criminal Justice Program for 2012.

Among the biggest reasons for that recognition: Only 13.9 percent of Project Re-entry participants have returned to prison within three years of their release, program coordinator Rebecca Sauter said. That compares with a recidivism rate of 40.1 percent for North Carolina and 67.5 percent for the country.

"Overall, we provide hope, first and foremost," Sauter said. "We provide the realities of transition, the realities of coming home, and we provide individuals with the tools to be able to make it."

The Fayetteville Observer traveled to Winston-Salem late last month to examine Project Re-entry for the newspaper's yearlong series, "Seeking Safety." This is the 10th monthly installment for the project, which seeks potential solutions to Fayetteville's crime problems.

Project Re-entry – under the Criminal Justice Department of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council – began in Winston-Salem in 2003. It has since expanded into 21 North Carolina counties and 14 prisons.

Last year, the state Department of Public Safety formed five re-entry councils that are similar in some respects to Project Re-entry. One of the five has been established for neighboring Hoke, Scotland and Robeson counties.

Cumberland County, though, has only a smattering of programs sponsored by the state or local nonprofit organizations. The lack of services has become so dire that Sue Byrd, director of the nonprofit organization Operation Inasmuch, was hard-pressed to name even one.

"Are there any?" Byrd asked. "If you find any, I would love to know about them."

Operation Inasmuch feeds breakfast to about 130 homeless people each morning in downtown Fayetteville. It offers skills training and is about to open a shelter. Many of the people who come through its doors have been to jail or prison at some point in their lives.

Byrd said people leaving prison often have their personal belongings mailed to Operation Inasmuch.

"That's sad, isn't it?" she said. "That your personal belongings are sent back to a nonprofit because that's who loves them."

Byrd is among those who say Cumberland County needs to do more to assist people leaving prison. Many felons have not spent much time beyond prison walls, yet they are expected to make their own way once they get out, she said.

"It's tough, I'll tell you what," Byrd said. "I've never seen anything like it, but we make it easy for people to be homeless in America.

"The things we are giving are not the things they need. It's not an issue of food, it's an issue of jobs and housing and integrity."

Mitchell, the man who recently completed the Project Re-entry program after more than 13 years in prison, did not face the same hurdles that Byrd sees day after day.

Mitchell was introduced to a prospective employer during a Project Re-entry class. He seized upon the opportunity and wound up with a job as a baker a week after his release from Forsyth Correctional Center.

Sauter, the Project Re-entry coordinator, said the program in Forsyth County has helped find jobs for 90 former prisoners so far this year.

Mitchell said he owes his new life to Project Re-entry.

"It helped me learn interview skills, relationship skills," said Mitchell, who is 35. "It also taught me how to conduct myself in a professional manner."

Rebecca Sauter worked in gang mediation before moving from Washington to Winston-Salem in 1998. Back then, Sauter said, no one wanted to work with former prisoners, so they were referred to her as a staff member with the state's Workforce Development program.

"The individuals were coming very ill prepared, very entitled, and they were individuals that I was not going to refer to employers," Sauter said. "They were not ready."

That began to change in 2001, when Sauter and others sat down for what would become two years of meetings to decide how best to help people coming out of prison.

The work was rewarded in 2003 when the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections selected North Carolina and four other states for pilot programs to integrate released prisoners back into their communities.

"They wanted us to develop an action plan for six months and report back. That was Project Re-entry," Sauter said. "After the six months were up, I just realized that it couldn't stop. It was just making too much sense."

To keep the program going, the group sought and was awarded a grant from the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission. Project Re-entry continues to receive the grant and has formed partnerships with Goodwill of Northwest North Carolina, businesses, religious groups, nonprofit organizations and charitable foundations.

Change in attitude is part of reform process

Project Re-entry is the umbrella organization for the 20 other counties that have adopted its practices. The counties stretch from Asheville to Rocky Mount. The key to the program is its 16-week course open to prisoners who have no more than 18 months left on their sentences.

"The underlying thread is attitude change," Sauter said. "Once the attitude changes, the approach changes and the results change."

During the course, prisoners hear from representatives of local colleges, social services agencies, county health departments, potential employers and many others. They are taught how to complete a job application form, how to dress for interviews, how to speak to employers and how to be honest about their criminal history.

The rest is up to them.

"We just put all the accountability, all the onus, on them," Sauter said. "Those who fall to the wayside, it's because they are not ready to accept that responsibility."

For many others, the course – and the access to Project Re-entry staff members after their release – can be a lifeline to making it in the real world.

Gordon Simpson is one of the success stories. When he left prison seven years ago, Simpson said, his worldly belongings consisted of some religious books and the $14 he had in his pocket.

Simpson said he initially fixed a broken lawn mower and began mowing lawns. But he had experience as a chef and eventually landed a job as a cook at a local community college. From there, he got a job as a chef at First Assembly Christian School, where today he cooks meals for about 500 children a day. On the side, he runs his own catering business.

Simpson is married now, and his work with the church has been rewarded with the promise of a $10,000 annual scholarship for his 2-year-old daughter to attend the school.

Helping ex-convicts get jobs is Project Re-entry's primary goal, but red figures recently scrawled on an office white board attest to the program's additional benefit: $18,860,349.

That is the estimated amount Project Re-entry has saved the state since 2003 by keeping people from returning to prison.

Many prisoner re-entry programs exist in North Carolina and throughout the country. What sets Project Re-entry apart, Sauter said, is its bond with prisoners while they are waiting to be freed and the bridge that exists once they get out.

"They realize that we are here, and they feel safe," Sauter said. "They feel like it is going to be OK versus they get out and they go to the Employment Security Commission and just a whole bunch of strangers in a very crowded room and they just wig out."

When prisoners are released, their biggest needs are housing, transportation and a job. Project Re-entry helps meet those needs.

"We will support anybody any way we can as long as they are doing the right thing," Sauter said. "It's not rocket science. You don't have to have all sorts of legislation and laws and formal memorandums of understanding and all this red tape and everything else to just simply help people."

In Fayetteville, advocates for convicted felons say, the biggest obstacle is not red tape. It's apathy.

Just before 8 a.m. on Aug. 4, dozens of people began filing into a conference room at the Cumberland County Department of Social Services.

County Commissioner Charles Evans had invited them as part of his nonprofit organization Fresh Start, which aims to help convicted felons find jobs.

Within minutes, so many people had gathered that a partition was opened to allow enough seating for everyone. The crowd spoke volumes about the number of convicted felons in Cumberland County who cannot find a job.

The situation could become even worse next year. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last month to allow more than 42,000 people held on drug charges in federal prisons to petition for sentence reductions.

'I didn't look at his past, I looked at his future'

Research shows that an estimated 92 percent of businesses conduct criminal background checks, and many business won't hire felons. The odds that an applicant with a criminal record will get a callback from an employer are reduced by half. It is even tougher finding work in a sluggish economy, when more people are competing for any job they can get.

Against that backdrop, Evans and Pastor Anthony Faison of 2nd Chance Ministries told the audience not to give up.

Evans and Faison have criminal records of their own, for illegal drugs and other offenses committed years ago. Both men took a slow road to establishing their careers, Faison by flipping hamburgers at McDonald's before he was promoted to manager.

"It doesn't matter where you start at, it matters where you end up," Faison told the crowd.

Evans said he started Fresh Start about eight years ago because his three felony convictions made him keenly aware of the problems convicts face. So he set out to help them find jobs.

"I believe everybody needs to be encouraged," Evans said. "People need to know there is a better way."

Evans said Cumberland County needs more programs to help convicted felons. He bristles at what he calls the dismantling of the state's mental health system, and he says local elected officials need to do more to fund agencies that help the poor.

"We talk about crime repeatedly," Evans said. "A lot of it is related to that there are no jobs. "It's getting terrible out here as far as jobs are concerned and people getting hired. They are not begging for anything. They are just asking for help."

Reginald Johnston, pastor of My Father's House Christian Church, shares Evans' belief that Cumberland County should do more to help convicted felons adjust to life after prison.

For years, Johnston went into Robeson County Correctional Center to preach, sometimes ferrying prisoners back to his church for Sunday services.

Not long ago, Johnston said, he tried everything possible to find shelter for a man he had been ministering to for more than a year. When the man's sentence was up, Johnston found a couple of Cumberland County shelters that would take him in for a week, and one that would take him in for a month. None would take him long-term,

"That really cut me to the heart," Johnston said.

It also spurred him to action. With help from his congregation, businesses and others, Johnston fixed up a dilapidated apartment complex in a low-income neighborhood off Old Shaw Road, near his church. Nine apartments were reserved largely for convicted felons, the other for office and classroom space.

The complex was dedicated in July 2011. Since then, Johnston said, 15 convicted felons have lived in the apartments, and five of them have found jobs.

Eric Jervey Jr. is among those who have found work. Five years ago, Jervey was charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree burglary.

Jervey said someone robbed him of $8,300 in drug money – he said he used to sell Ecstasy – and he and a soldier went to a home in Spring Lake to get the money back. Four people ended up getting wounded, one fatally. Jervey said he never fired a shot and he went to prison on burglary and assault convictions.

Before his release from prison, Jervey wrote two letters to Johnston, urging the preacher to take him in. Johnston said he was impressed by Jervey's determination.

"Things he put in his letter, I could see he was remorseful," Johnston said. "I didn't look at his past, I looked at his future."

Jervey left prison in February and moved into one of Johnston's apartments in March. He landed a minimum-wage job washing dishes at a Hope Mills restaurant and this month got hired by Smithfield Packing Co, where he will earn $11 an hour.

Jervey, who is engaged to be married, said he plans to go to college someday. He wants to get a business degree and open his own restaurant.

"I'm not going back" to prison, he said. "That's not my lifestyle."

Without Johnston's assistance and a place to live, Jervey said, he doesn't know where he would be.

Wrap-around services a key to success

A recent study by researchers at Washington State University shows that providing housing and wraparound services – such as drug or alcohol abuse treatment – to high-risk felons significantly reduces the chance that they will commit more crimes and go back to prison.

Johnston said he has tried to persuade other ministers to establish housing for felons, but so far none has climbed on board.

He said he knows his efforts are small compared with the need that exists in the county, but he keeps chipping away. Recently, the church acquired four more apartments to house felons.

"I think it's sad that there are not many people that I know of in Fayetteville that really welcome these guys," Johnston said.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act – sweeping but largely unheralded legislation that vastly changed the state's criminal justice system.

For the most part, the law expanded programs that divert people with felony drug convictions from prison, required supervision of everyone released from prison, and focused supervision and treatment resources on convicts with the highest risks and needs.

The law also transferred most misdemeanor offenders from prisons to county jails and allowed short jail stays for people who violate community supervision.

The law's primary intent is to get people out of prison and keep them from returning by plowing money into communities for more and better support services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training, housing and transportation.

The money for the expanded services is supposed to come from the savings realized by closing prisons. Since 2011, the state has shuttered nine prisons. In the last fiscal year, those closures amounted to about $50 million in savings.

Advocates for prison reform say they remain optimistic that the Justice Reinvestment Act will fulfill its goals of reducing the prison population while making streets safer.

Those goals are being achieved, according to a report released in June by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the National Re-entry Resource Center.

The report found a 19.3 percent reduction in North Carolina's three-year recidivism rate for people released from prison in 2007 compared with those in 2010. At the same time, the state's overall crime rate has declined.

But advocates for prisoner programs question whether the state is pouring enough money into community services.

Lao Rubert, director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, said services provided at the local level today are about 70 percent of what they were before the Justice Reinvestment Act was approved.

The law led to the elimination of Cumberland County's Day Reporting Center, where an estimated 200 people on probation took GED and life-skills classes and received anger-management counseling.

The county wanted the state to replace the center with a facility to treat criminal behaviors and substance abuse, but the state offered less than half of the $241,234 it provided annually to run the center. The county declined the money because it was not enough to fund a treatment facility, said James Lawson, an assistant county manager.

Instead, the state hired Integrated Behavioral Health Services to provide substance abuse treatment and cognitive behavioral interventions, which largely aim to eliminate criminal behavior by getting people to learn new skills and ways of thinking.

John Jackson, director of Integrated Behavioral Health Services, said he recognizes the value of cognitive behavioral interventions – also known as CBI.

But Jackson does not like the state's funding distribution, which calls for 80 percent of people referred to his clinic from the county probation office to receive CBI treatment, while only 20 percent are treated for substance abuse. Research shows that up to 80 percent of people leaving prison have abused drugs or alcohol.

Jackson and Rubert said a 50-50 split in treatment options would be of much greater benefit. In the last fiscal year, Jackson said, his clinic treated about 36 people for drug or alcohol abuse.

Another clinic with a state contract, Coastal Horizons Center, also provides substance abuse treatment for people on probation, but caregivers say many more people in the county need the services.

"In reality," Jackson said, "if I had the funding, I could see 1,000 people."

The lack of substance abuse treatment is not the only concern.

State figures show that of the $125,000 designated to Jackson's clinic in the last fiscal year, only $77,000 was spent.

Jackson said that is because probation officers are not referring many people to his clinic, and many of those who are referred fail to show up.

State statistics show that 164 people on probation were referred to the clinic in the last fiscal year. Of those, Jackson said, only about 50 to 60 completed treatment. The goal for the year was about twice that many, according to the state.

Jackson and Rubert said that is a concern in counties throughout North Carolina.

"Our program works; it works really well," Jackson said. "It's just that we don't have the referrals we need."

About the same time the county lost its Day Reporting Center, funding dried up for the Fayetteville Alternative Sentencing Center, which worked to keep people out of prison by offering job counseling and community service.

The same year, the county lost its drug treatment court, which aimed to rehabilitate people rather than incarcerate them.

"While these cuts were not technically a part of Justice Reinvestment, they comprised a significant loss of services at the local level," Rubert said in an email.

A cornerstone of the Justice Reinvestment Act is to ensure that everyone released from prison has direct supervision. The state has hired 175 more probation officers to fulfill that mission.

But the law applies only to people coming out of prison after Dec. 1, 2011, when the legislation took effect. Last year, 818 people left prisons and returned to Cumberland County. Of those, 496 were unsupervised – or 61 percent.

And while Hoke, Scotland and Robeson County received a combined $125,000 to establish a re-entry council, Cumberland County was left out.

Nicole Sullivan, director of rehabilitative services for the Department of Public Safety, said the site selection for the state's five pilot re-entry councils was based largely on a county or rural area's ability to sustain the mission through a collaborative effort led by an established agency.

The agency chosen for Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties is the Center for Community Action, headed by longtime activist Mac Legerton. Each of the three counties has a separate council, as well.

Sullivan said the primary mission is to provide "one-stop shopping" for former prisoners needing assistance landing a job or getting housing or transportation. The council has a two-member paid staff that coordinates closely with prisons, probation officers, and the organizations, businesses, law enforcement officers and religious groups that can provide help.

The five re-entry councils started operating about nine months ago, Sullivan said. Since then, she said, an estimated 100 of the 400 people served have found jobs.

Legerton said about 40 people have found jobs through the re-entry council for Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties. Legerton called the council "very successful," though he would like to see more funding.

"The challenge is there are so many people coming out" of prisons, he said. "We need a staff of four people almost in every county, and there are just two full-time staff for the entire program, so we are very challenged to meet everyone's need. We really need the community and the faith community to step in and assist."

Sullivan said the state's goal is eventually to have re-entry councils for all 100 North Carolina counties. But for now, many of the people coming out of prison in Scotland, Hoke and Robeson counties are heading to Cumberland County, where little help is available.

One organization providing assistance is the Former Offender Initiative through the Department of Commerce's Division of Workforce Solutions. Michael Westray, a leader of the initiative whose district includes Fayetteville, applauds the new re-entry councils, but he said more needs to be done to teach former prisoners how to dress, fill out job application forms and act appropriately – some of the key components of Project Re-Entry.

Westray works directly with former prisoners to try to find them jobs, but he acknowledges there is only so much he can do. His district – one of six in the state – extends from Siler City to Wilmington.

"There are criminals, and there are those that have committed a crime," Westray said. "I meet every day with men and women who have committed a crime, done their time, and paid their debt to society.

"There are so many who want to turn their lives in the right direction. We as a community have an obligation to make that process as easy as we can."

Westray said he met recently with Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson and other city officials to discuss the problems with people being sent back to prison.

"Recidivism is one of the key areas that keeps the cycle of crime thriving," Westray said. "Too often, we focus more on incarceration and punishment than we do on rehabilitating those that are ready to seek a way forward, a second chance."

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at barnesg@fayobserver.com or 486-3525.