William Elmore was out of prison after serving twenty-five years for a murder conviction. He needed toothpaste, so he headed to Walmart.
He left feeling sick.
“It was like a kaleidoscope of sensory overload. It was too rich, too many colors,” he says. “There’s so many different types of toothpaste, it made my stomach hurt.”
Elmore had gone from a life with virtually no choiceshis movements, time, and surroundings tightly regulatedto one where no one would tell him where to go or how to spend his time, let alone what toothpaste to pluck from the shelf.
Overwhelming trips to Walmart are an experience a five-person team (plus an intern) at Durham City Hall has heard about repeatedly over the past few months as its members studied the challenges that confront people returning from prison.
Backed by a $1.2 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and $400,000 from the city, the Innovation Team’s mission is a broad one: “Drive bold innovation, change culture, and tackle big problems to deliver better results for residents.” For the first year of the program, the team is applying that specifically to the economic barriers faced by Durham residents who have come in contact with the criminal justice system.
According to Josh Edwards, director of Durham’s I-Team, the idea to focus on people involved in the justice system came from city manager Tom Bonfield and outgoing Durham mayor Bill Bell.
“We talk about crime in this community,” Bell said during a presentation by the I-Team to the city council last week. “We talk about poverty in this community. We talk about the quality of life in this community for all people. But to me this is one of the most important … because of the project and what its potential is for impacting the lives of so many people who have gotten involved in the justice systemsome through no fault of their own, some through fault of their own. But the fact is they have a way out, and this is one opportunity for them do that.”
Despite being housed in the budget department, working on the I-Team isn’t a typical government job. The team has interviewed more than one hundred peopleabout half justice-system-involved individuals, plus service providers, court officials, law enforcement, employers, and advocatesand dug into the consequences of having a criminal record. Their workspace is lined with the results: quotes from interviewees on cutout pieces of paper tacked on to eight boards, according to themes like “housing,” “family,” “gangs,” and “between two worlds.”
“When we were interviewing people, a theme that came up over and over again was that people felt like they couldn’t shake a criminal record, like a criminal record was almost like a life sentence,” says Erin Parish, the team’s design strategist.
About seven hundred people return to Durham each year from state prisons, the team found. From last October to this September, about three-quarters of the Durham residents who exited state prisons were black, according to Department of Public Safety data.
In addition, the I-Team learned that around seven thousand people each year go through the Durham County Detention Facility. Currently, about twenty-four hundred people are on probation in Durham County. Again, they are largely young black men.
“This is important to highlight because twenty to thirty years old is usually when people are just starting … to crystallize who they are and select their occupations,” the team’s data analyst, Darin Johnson, told the council last week.
Chuck Manning, the team’s outreach coordinator, who has been through the criminal justice system himself, says many of the jobs open to people with records pay less and offer less upward mobility than the illegal work they may have been doing before being incarcerated.
“They have families who depend on them, they have children who need their support, and they also have everyday living expenses,” Manning says. “It’s hard for justice-involved residents to choose legal employment when they have all these pressures and responsibilities.”
They may come out of incarceration burdened by debt. Parish and project manager Ryan Smith visited Durham residents at Polk Correctional Institution and were told inmates there carried $300 to $50,000 in debt.
“We have shifted so much of the burden of paying for the criminal justice system to those who are incarcerated,” Smith says.
There are also social and psychological barriers to reentry. People may not only need help filling out online applications that didn’t exist before they were incarcerated and guidance on how to apply skills they used illegally in a legal setting, but also time management training, anger management, or therapy.
“The survival skills you learn to survive incarcerated are oftentimes directly contradictory to the survival skills you need to thrive in a workplace,” Parish told the council.
The I-Team has also heard from interviewees that having no driver’s license was a barrier to their success. It’s keeping them from jobs and, for those who have little choice but to take the risk and drive, landing them with fines or in jail. They found that, according to the N.C. Justice Center, 933,386 people in North Carolina have had their license revoked for failing to appear in traffic court or pay fines. (Forty-three states suspend licenses over court debt, but in North Carolina suspensions are mandatory and indefinite.)
Last week, Johnson received long-awaited records from the DMV showing that 44,898 people in Durham County have suspended licenses. It’s not yet clear how many of those people failed to pay or appear, but they do know about 67 percent are black and 87 percent are male. What’s more, the team has learned that driving with a revoked license is one of the most common charges among those in the Durham County jail.
In partnership with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, the I-Team held an amnesty program that allowed people to apply by text or email (rather than appear in person at the courthouse) to have their traffic records wiped clean. Two thousand applications were submitted.
“Certainly we want people to be accountable for traffic violations, even minor traffic violations,” District Attorney Roger Echols told the council. “But I don’t know if you’ve heard, court costs can be pretty punitive these days, and dealing with the DMV is probably even more punitive.”
Solutions the I-Team uncovers may or may not end up at City Hall. On December 4, the group will open an innovation lab on the first floor where the team can meet, others interested in criminal justice issues can learn about its work, and city staffers can seek help injecting some social science into their own projects. They’ll also hold an employer meeting in an effort to get more local companies to hire people with records.
“We’re not implementers,” Edwards says. “If we identify a program or an idea that works, and the data shows it works and the people we’ve worked with believe in that idea, we’re really spinning out that idea and finding a champion for that.”