For seven years, Cavin White’s family helped to support him while he was in prison, putting money in his commissary account, paying for phone calls, and visiting him as often as they could. When he got out, just before Christmas, he wanted to return the help. 

“You want to be able to pay your bills,” he says. “You want to support yourself. You want to support the ones that looked out for you while you were gone. You don’t want them taking care of you while you were gone and then get out and they’re still taking care of you. I was ready, like, I need a job. I need a job.”

White, thirty-eight, had been preparing for his release, scouring newspapers to see what jobs were in demand and earning every certification he could, even if it meant being transferred to another prison farther from his family in Durham. After about ten transfers—taking him as far as coastal Craven County—he had credentials in HVAC, culinary arts, and brick masonry. He took business classes. He was ready.

“I was thinking, if I come home, I got these credentials. Even though I know the felony is on my record, I should be able to find a job like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “But it was completely different—opposite.”

He applied for so many jobs, he lost count. He’d get excited about a prospect, only to have the interview eventually come back to his record. It’s not that he wasn’t willing to address it—he took responsibility for his manslaughter conviction and for changing his life in the intervening years. 

The problem was what would follow, usually some vague response like, “We’ll call you.”

They never called. 

But thanks to a re-entry program the city of Durham has recently expanded to serve people coming home from every prison in North Carolina, that’s changed. Last month, White started a job doing HVAC and other work for the city’s General Services department.

Through the Welcome Home program, which launched in October, White got peer support to help him navigate the transition after prison. He was also connected to the city’s transitional jobs program, through which he got job training at Durham Tech before starting at General Services. (The city is trying to bring private employers on board as well.)

The program is part of a larger effort by the city’s Innovation Team to reduce economic barriers for justice-involved Durham residents. Last year, 743 Durham residents were released from North Carolina prisons. Welcome Home seeks to connect them to housing, employment, transportation, and advice so that they can successfully reintegrate into a community they sometimes left years ago, and avoid further contact with the criminal legal system.

Each participant—forty-eight so far—gets a box of items (usually donated and packed by church groups) to help them make that transition: a bus pass, toiletries, groceries, a cell phone, and a letter signed by Mayor Steve Schewel welcoming them and telling them they are “not alone.” In addition, they get twenty hours of peer support from a specialist who is formerly incarcerated, although relationships between participants and specialists last far beyond those twenty hours.

Peer support is a tried and true aspect of re-entry programs across the country, though those programs are often targeted at specific populations, such as people with mental illness or substance addictions. What sets Welcome Home apart is its wrap-around, hands-on nature. Peer-support specialists take participants shopping for a job interview outfit. They connect them to other city-affiliated initiatives, like the transitional jobs program and a license restoration and expunction clinic. They call halfway homes looking for beds for those who don’t have a place to go.

Chuck Manning Sr., a program creator and one of its three specialists, says nothing like Welcome Home existed when he was released in 2015 from the Durham jail after fourteen months.

He estimates that he applied for eighty jobs, but he struggled to get hired because of his record. 

“You’re on an emotional roller coaster. You’re happy to be free and be home, but you know you have a responsibility to take care of your family,” he says.

He knew how to cook, so he borrowed a grill and put $145 he had saved up toward starting a catering business. (He didn’t have a driver’s license, so he hitched that grill to a cousin’s truck). Through that, he got connected to Bull City United, an anti-violence program, then to the city’s Innovation Team, and realized the motivational scriptures he used to hand out to other detainees in the jail were actually the beginning of a career helping others whose shoes he’d been in.

But Manning says he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t found mentors who’d succeeded in making the same transition. In addition to the hurdles returning prisoners face finding jobs and housing, many don’t have licenses because of unresolved tickets, don’t have bank accounts, and don’t have experience with technology that became ubiquitous while they were locked up. It’s hard to know where to start—and easy to fall back on the behavior that got them behind bars, Manning says. 

“When your head is spinning like that, that’s when you tend to make some bad decisions,” he says. 

According to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, of the fifteen thousand people released from state prisons in 2015, 31 percent had been rearrested a year later. Of those arrests, a quarter happened within the person’s first three months out of prison, underscoring the importance of early intervention. Research suggests that employment, housing, and peer support can all reduce recidivism.

Welcome Home aims to reach prisoners sixty days before their release to start generating both trust and a post-release game plan. The program started out serving four prisons in the region, but with the help of Durham’s Local Reentry Council, it’s reaching into all fifty-six prisons in the state, as well as the federal complex in Butner. 

It’s a simple process. The LRC provides the program with a list of Durham residents with an upcoming release date. The Welcome Home team writes each a letter—Welcome Home has sent letters to 130 people who are set to be released by the end of June—and asks them to write back if they’re interested in participating. (Manning has also built relationships with parole officers in order to reach people who are already out of jail that the program missed.) 

From there, participants can pick up their box of items at City Hall and get assigned a peer-support specialist, who offers advice, rides, and networking help, and even trips to Walmart or Target to buy an outfit for job interviews, using a gift card provided through the program. 

For Latetia Bright, getting that letter from Manning made her feel like someone was looking out for her.

“I got home at Christmas, and I couldn’t wait for Monday to come just so I could hear Chuck’s voice,” says Bright, a mother of six, who spent five-and-a-half months at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. 

Manning’s support also helped her when she needed to quickly change her address, a typically mundane process that, when you’re on parole, can lead the state to believe you’ve skipped town if it’s not done correctly.

Prior to her release, Bright’s “home plan” entailed staying with her mom. But prison officials didn’t approve it because her mother lives in a Durham Housing Authority unit, and the DHA can—and sometimes must—deny people admission for past criminal activity.

So she moved in with her sister, whose lease was ending in three days. That meant Bright not only had to move on short notice but reach her parole officer during the holidays and register her new address before going anywhere. If she didn’t get permission in time, she’d be marked “absconded.” Bright frantically called her parole officer, and Manning started looking for a backup in case her sister’s new place wasn’t approved. 

In the end, Bright got approval to move in with her mom, but the prospect of going back to prison for no good reason frightened her. Since then, Welcome Home has helped Bright get unpaid traffic tickets waived and her driver’s license reinstated. She’s also planning to get her GED. 

Bright got a break a lot of former prisoners don’t: Her sister helped her line up a job doing housekeeping at a hotel. 

Almost all large employers conduct criminal background checks on applicants, according to the Second Chance Alliance, a statewide organization dedicated to addressing the causes and consequences of criminal records. A Northwestern University study found that applicants with records are 50 percent less likely to get a callback. The prospects are even worse for black applicants. 

According to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, 53 percent of people who left the state’s prisons in 2015 were unemployed two years later. In addition, just 26 percent had graduated high school and 78 percent had a possible substance use problem. 

People who were unemployed, unmarried, didn’t finish high school, or used drugs were more likely to re-offend. 

Out of the forty-eight people served so far by Welcome Home, Manning says all but three have remained arrest-free. Research suggests that over time—up to four years for drug or property-crime offenders, according to a study in a 2009 American Society of Criminology journal—people with prior convictions become no more likely to commit a crime than the general public. 

For Manning, those second chances can be transformative.

“One thing you lose in mass incarceration, in the school-to-prison pipeline, you lose a voice and power for yourself,” he says. “This program gives you back your power.”

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