State leaders mobilize to strengthen reentry support for people leaving prison

By Rachel Crumpler 

Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people in North Carolina prisons will one day return home — roughly 18,000 people this year alone. 

But walking out of the doors of a prison often marks the start of new hardships and challenges as people work to rebuild their lives in the community. For most people, the path holds a variety of obstacles that can be distressing and difficult to overcome.

Barriers like employers refusing to hire people with a criminal record, limited housing options and lack of health insurance can often impede people’s ability to land — and stay — on their feet.

All won’t be successful.

A report released this month by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission found a 44 percent re-arrest rate within two years from a sample of 12,889 people released from North Carolina state prisons in fiscal year 2021. The same sample had an 18 percent re-conviction rate and 33 percent were sent back to prison within two years of their release. 

State leaders are increasingly focused on improving reentry support for formerly incarcerated people so that their transition back to the community is smoother and more successful. 

About 700 people committed to this goal gathered in Raleigh this week at the North Carolina Rehabilitation and Reentry Conference to discuss how to build a holistic approach to reentry. Maggie Brewer, chief deputy secretary at the Department of Adult Correction, which hosted the conference, said it’s the largest such conference to date with about 150 more attendees than last year, signaling the strong interest and momentum behind helping more formerly incarcerated people be successful when they get home. 

The N.C. Department of Adult Correction hosted the 2024 Rehabilitation and Reentry Conference in Raleigh on April 22-24. This year’s theme was “Building a Wholistic Approach to Reentry.” Attendees included prison wardens, probation and parole officers, judicial district managers, state agency workers, nonprofit leaders and justice-involved people. Credit: Rachel Crumpler/NC Health News

George Pettigrew, deputy secretary for rehabilitation and reentry at the Department of Adult Correction, told conference attendees he believes this year holds an important inflection point in the state’s work.

A main driving force behind improving reentry support is Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order No. 303. The January directive calls for a “whole-of-government” approach to boosting reentry services for formerly incarcerated people in North Carolina; this means all state cabinet agencies — not just the Department of Adult Correction — are working to break down barriers for this population. 

Gov. Roy Cooper signs Executive Order No. 303 on January 29, 2024, at the governor’s mansion. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. Department of Adult Correction
Cooper’s order also enrolled North Carolina in Reentry 2030, a national initiative sponsored by the nonprofit Council of State Governments that aims to dramatically improve reentry success.

Pettigrew said another recent change poised to help smooth transitions out of incarceration is Medicaid expansion, which took effect Dec. 1. The expanded health coverage eligibility criteria means that substantially more justice-involved people can enroll in Medicaid, rather than falling into a health insurance coverage gap.

The reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated people to pursue post-secondary education also provides an opportunity for people to be better positioned to land jobs upon release, Pettigrew said.

“We’re at a point that I think by 2030, we will look back and say, ‘This was the year we started transforming rehabilitation and reentry in North Carolina,’” Pettigrew said.

“We can make more success stories,” Pettigrew continued. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s about public safety, and we want to have those good neighbors beside us too.”

Bold goals

In his final year in office, Cooper has made improving reentry services for formerly incarcerated people a priority. 

“I have met many of them who have been able to come out of the darkness and move into the light and live successful lives,” Cooper said in his conference keynote address. “I’m grateful for those successes. But, all of us, we’ve seen the failures.”

Many stakeholders across the state — state agencies, nonprofits, housing partners, community colleges and more — are working together to break down barriers for justice-involved individuals. 

“Success has to be a team effort,” Cooper said. “You help with obstacles one through four, the next person helps with obstacles five through seven, the next person covers obstacle eight. And finally, a successful reentry happens.”

As the third state to join the Reentry 2030 initiative and the first by executive order, North Carolina committed to achieving many ambitious goals by 2030. The goals include:

Increasing the number of high school and post-secondary credentials earned by incarcerated people by 75 percent.

Reducing the number of incarcerated people who are homeless upon release by 50 percent.

Providing reentry assistance to previously incarcerated people in every county in the state through Local Reentry Councils.

Increasing the number of post-secondary degrees offered in facilities by 25 percent.

Increasing the number of Pell Grant partners by 30 percent.

Ensuring that all eligible incarcerated people are offered the opportunity to apply for Medicaid before release.

Increasing the number of apprenticeships completed by incarcerated people by 50 percent.

Increasing the number of second-chance employer partners by 30 percent.

“I set bold goals because I knew we could get there,” Cooper said at the conference. “North Carolina is setting an example for the rest of the country.”

A push for progress

Todd Ishee, secretary of the Department of Adult Correction, shared at the conference that the prison system is already making progress on these goals.

Ishee announced that his department is allocating $1.9 million to establish Local Reentry Councils to serve 27 more counties. The Department of Commerce also announced earlier this month $750,000 to establish three additional councils. The state already has 17 councils that help connect justice-involved people to services and resources in the community. In 2024, Ishee said 54 counties will have a Local Reentry Council — over halfway to the goal of having a council serving all 100 counties. 

Ishee also said that the Department of Adult Correction formed a partnership with the Department of Transportation to provide people leaving incarceration with state identification before they go home. He said that almost 75 percent of eligible people are opting in to receive the state ID, making it one less task to accomplish upon release.

So far this fiscal year, Ishee said that the state’s incarcerated population of over 30,000 has already doubled the number of educational credentials earned compared with last year and could be on track to triple that number by the year’s end. In part, that’s due to the use of tablets to complete courses and learn content through Hope University, the prison system’s online catalog of educational materials. 

Todd Ishee, secretary of the N.C. Department of Adult Correction, which oversees a population of more than 30,000 people incarcerated in North Carolina state prisons. Ishee said that historic investments in rehabilitation and reentry will be made this year. “We’re going to make significant change in how we do business and how we impact more people in a positive and a successful way,” he said. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. Department of Adult Correction
Since its launch in April 2022, people throughout the state prison system have completed 5 million courses and learning content opportunities, Ishee said.

In addition to a growing number of educational opportunities, Ishee said the Department of Adult Correction is creating more workforce opportunities. For example, the prison system recently partnered with a commercial driver’s license school in the state that can help men earn a license even while they are incarcerated. Last month, Ishee said that the prison system graduated its first cohort of men who will be leaving prison with commercial driver’s licenses, essentially guaranteeing an opportunity for a living-wage job as a truck driver upon release.

Other state agencies have also already started to take action to improve reentry support. Among the early actions, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services invested $5.5 million in FIT Wellness, a program that provides psychiatric and physical health care along with connections to community supports such as housing and transportation to people with a serious mental illness leaving the state prison system. The Department of Commerce allocated $325,000 to support transportation needs for men and women who are returning to the community who don’t have a ride.

Ishee said state agencies working together is key because the Department of Adult Correction can’t move the needle on recidivism alone. The unified push across the state to boost reentry support can have “generational impacts,” Ishee said, creating more hope and opportunity for personal growth for justice-involved people.

Making success stories

Brian Scott, who spent over 20 years behind bars, knows how hard the transition back home can be. He was released from prison in February 2021.

“Going into prison, and getting out of prison would seem at first glance to be two extremes of human experience, but they share one thing in common, and that is fear,” he told people gathered at the conference. “You go into prison, and you’re afraid. ‘How will they treat me? How will I overcome these challenges?’ I had those same thoughts the night before I got out: How are they going to treat me? How am I going to overcome these challenges?” 

But Scott found his footing back in the community with the support of his faith, family and other formerly incarcerated people. He said his journey was also helped by his experience inside prison and the workers who saw the good in him.

Brian Scott (second from left), along with two other formerly incarcerated people, shares his experience returning to the community after spending two decades in prison during a panel at the Rehabilitation and Reentry Conference on April 22. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. Department of Adult Correction
“Do you truly want to make reentry better? Are you serious about building a more holistic approach to reentry?” he asked attendees. “If you really want to see us excel on the outside, it starts with how you see us on the inside.”

Now, he’s running a growing nonprofit, OurJourney, which provides reentry kits to people leaving prison. He was present at the governor’s mansion while Cooper signed the executive order ushering in a focus on reentry support.

“It was an overwhelming moment for me,” he said. “I stood there and I asked myself, ‘How in the world did I get here?’” 

Scott wants reentry success like his to happen for everyone else leaving prison. 

“Improving reentry is about more than just the first few days after a person leaves incarceration,” Cooper said. “It’s about how we can prepare them to be successful every day, every week, every month and every year thereafter.”

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https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2024/04/26/we-can-make-more-success-stories-state-leaders-mobilize-to-strengthen-reentry-support/

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