By Hannah Taylor
The Durham VOICE
Corey Wise has the date committed to memory. The date was his finish line – a beacon of hope at the end of a long, dark, cell-lined tunnel. Around prison, it was the conversation topic when people would ask, “How many more days, man?”
It was May 27, 2009, when Wise walked into the daylight, leaving Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg and six years of incarceration behind him. With no money or possessions but the clothes on his back, he was picked up by family and driven to live with his aunt and cousins in Durham.
“I thought it was going to be fun – thought it was going to be happy-go-lucky,” says Wise, now 25, comparing his re-entry to moving into a bachelor pad. “I knew it was going to be a struggle, but I thought it was going to be different from this struggle I just went through. I was wrong. I was so wrong.”
Wise says that reintegrating into the community he hadn’t known since he was 18 years old has been a lonely and turbulent experience. In prison, he says he committed to changing his life, but sticking with this goal has been difficult since he’s been home.
“You stop smoking marijuana, but you’re still around people who smoke,” Wise says. “You don’t drink alcohol, but you’re around people who do. You don’t sell drugs, but you’re around people who do.”
Wise was arrested in 2004 in his home of New Bern for being an accessory to a second-degree murder. His story is one of thousands of similar stories, mostly of young, African-American males like him incarcerated in North Carolina.
North Carolina Trends
According to the most recent statistics from the North Carolina Justice Center, the statewide prison population has risen to about 40,000 in recent years. About 50 percent of offenders are sent back to prison for new crimes, often within a few years of being released.
Durham County has felt the strain of people returning to prison, a trend known as “recidivism.” As of September 2010, nearly 4,000 people in Durham County were on probation or parole, and about half of them will return to prison, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections. Given that the nationwide cost of incarcerating one prisoner amounts to nearly $24,000 per year, Durham has recognized the need to reduce recidivism rates.
“The challenge becomes not how to punish criminals, but how to keep them from returning to prison,” says Robin Heath, the program manager at the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center.
The CJRC is one of a handful of taxpayer- and grant-funded organizations that offers structured programs and services for offenders such as job training workshops, academic instruction, counseling and transitional housing for drug rehabilitation.
Heath says that Durham is ahead of the curve in supporting the newly released offender population.
“In going statewide and looking at other areas, it is apparent that Durham is doing more to assist people in returning to the community,” Heath says. “When we interview inmates, we hear all the time, ‘I wish they had [these services] everywhere.’”
A Clean Place to Call Home
Drew Doll stands on the steps of the sky-blue front porch of Just a Clean House on Taylor Street in Northeast Central Durham. Doll is the house manager of this establishment, but just over a year ago, he occupied a room in the recovery home as a newly released felon and addict.
In some ways, Doll’s story is atypical. Doll had a 20-year career in business and was working as an accountant in 2003 in Apex when he was arrested for embezzling a quarter of a million dollars. He is 50 years old, white and educated. After four years in prison, he was assigned to a transition house for recovery through the CJRC and was given shelter, food, clothing and employment aid. Thanks to persistence and some help, Doll applied to 138 jobs in 30 days before being hired by Chick-Fil-A.
“When you transition out of prison, they don’t give you a washcloth and a towel,” Doll says. “They keep theirs. Most guys leave and have nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing.”
Doll admits that he was lucky.
“Most people who come out of prison are just kind of dumped out,” Doll says. “A lot of times guys get a bus ticket home, and that’s it. Many times the family you’re in wasn’t a good place to go back to.”
Doll says that in his experience, many people who spend time incarcerated aren’t aware of the resources available when they leave prison. Some people, like Doll, are assigned to the CJRC, but the services are available to anyone seeking assistance after prison.
Transition homes typically serve as shelter for one to three months while residents apply to jobs and search for long-term housing. Many transition houses also have a clothes closet stocked with everything from socks and shoes to suits for interviews.
“They’ll help you get a Social Security card and a driver’s license,” Doll says of the home operated by the CJRC. In addition, the center offers a series of classes on how to write a resume and how to succeed in an interview.
The CJRC provides critical transition opportunities based on research that employment is one of the most effective tools in reducing recidivism and creating a safer community and lower cost to taxpayers.
“You come out of prison and you don’t have the job skills,” Doll says. “You don’t know how to find a job, you don’t have the clothes to apply for a job and you’ve never had a steady job because a lot of guys go to prison and are in and out of prison from their late teens to their early twenties. CJRC is a tremendous resource.”
Renewing the Faith
A few months into Corey Wise’s parole, the Durham County police raided the house where he was staying in a drug bust. Although Wise wasn’t involved, his probation officers warned that his relationships and his environment put him at a high risk for returning to prison. They recommended he move into a transition house. He was faced with a tough decision.
“If I wanted to be prideful, I could have said no, but I would have gotten locked back up,” Wise says. “So, why go back to that?”
Wise moved into the CJRC transition house and said that being forced to be clean and having a curfew were measures that formed an ecosystem that bred change. Authority was hard to swallow after newfound freedom, but Wise says that being accountable for his actions and feeling supported was important.
“I still felt invincible. Really, that’s how I felt when I was freed,” Wise says. “That really went away in the transition home. … I think it was the best thing that happened to me during my integration. It just opened doors for a lot of change. It allowed me to connect with positive people – to get positive – ’cause I was still negative.”
After successfully completing six out of nine months of probation, Wise was introduced to a faith team through the Religious Coalition for Nonviolent Durham. His faith team, made up of about six community members, met weekly to provide practical, emotional and spiritual support when Wise says his life was most hectic.
“I don’t want to say I was on a highway to hell, but life was going faster that I could keep up with it,” Wise says.
Wise becomes quiet and contemplative, speaking softly when he talks about his faith team, whom he calls family.
“If I wasn’t lucky enough to meet the people I did, I wouldn’t have made it,” Wise says. “It was that trust and maintaining that that I kept getting opportunities.”
“The faith team came through CJRC which came from prison,” he says. “If it hadn’t have been for prison, I wouldn’t have had any of this right now. If I hadn’t gone to prison, I don’t think I’d be here today.”
It was through connections made in faith teams that Wise and Doll both landed their first jobs. Doll now works as a cook for Child Care Services Association and Wise is the baker at Ninth St. Bakery in downtown Durham.
When Wise was asked about the most effective measure for positive change in his life after prison, he says simply, “People, the human resources.”
A Greater Purpose
In addition to providing a support system for people leaving prison, there is a consensus among re-entry programs that preventing people from going to prison is the first battle.
Doll says that more needs to be done to help high-risk communities break the cycle of people returning to prison multiple times, or what he calls “living life on the installment plan.”
Wise says that during his six-year stay in prison, he saw one man return to prison seven times, which has caused him to reflect on young adults who live recklessly. When he first left prison, Wise says he didn’t like talking about his time behind bars, but then he realized his story could help other young men in his neighborhood from repeating his mistakes.
“I tell them they’ve got a choice. … It’s a lot of pain and a lot of acceptance. There’s a lot of looking at yourself that you’re gonna have to do,” he says. “I could stop someone else from going. I just feel like, maybe, I’ve got a purpose that I can’t screw up.”