Sept. 17, 2008 12:00

Ex-felons find success with re-entry program

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When Raynard Reaves left the North Carolina prison system last year after 32 years behind bars, he left with a bus ticket and the clothes on his back. But he also had something less tangible, something unavailable to most of North Carolina’s prison population: A support system provided by Winston-Salem’s Project Re-entry.

Now he’s a success story, a family man and productive employee with 15 unblemished months of freedom.

The man he is today is a far cry from the 19-year-old heroin addict who committed armed robbery and landed in Raleigh’s Central Prison, a maximum-security institution notorious for its tough inmate population.

Reaves said he credits Project Re entry for much of his success on the outside. The program starts inside prison with a 12-week curriculum of life skills classes. Once they’ve been released, ex-prisoners who’ve successfully completed the 12-week pre-release program are eligible to receive services and employment on the outside. It’s the only pre- to post release re-entry program in North Carolina and serves nine facilities including the Forsyth and Guilford correctional centers.

“I think they should make it mandatory for everyone who is in prison to go through the re-entry program,” Reaves said. Rebecca Sauter, director of Project Re-entry, measures the program’s accomplishments by employment statistics. Every program graduate who goes on to take and keep a full time job and doesn’t re-offend is considered a success. Now the city of Winston-Salem is considering contributing to that success by actively committing to employ graduates of the program, which started in the Forsyth Correctional Center in 1999. City Councilwoman Vivian Burke, who represents the city’s Northeast Ward, said Winston-Salem should be an example for area businesses by implementing an employment program for ex-offenders. Right now, the city doesn’t have a policy either barring or encouraging the employment of ex-offenders. A proposal working its way through committee would encourage departments to hire ex-felons who have successfully completed programs like Project Re-entry.

“A lot of the folks who are coming back to this area are having problems with unemployment because they have something on their record,” Burke said. Burke and the other members of the public safety committee are debating whether the city policy should include numerical goals or a clearer policy that simply encourages rehabilitation.

Sauter, who founded the program, recognized the need for re-entry services when she was working for the city of Winston-Salem. She was working with an ex-felon who was struggling with work at a janitorial service for several months before she found out he was developmentally disabled.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something to understand who is coming out,’” she said. “That way we could save a lot of time and trauma on re-entry.”

Enter Sauter and her colleagues. In addition to providing nuts-and bolts guidance on things like résumé writing and interview technique, the instructors give presentations on self esteem and behavior management.

Project Re-entry counselors also administer vocational and personality assessments to better match participants with suitable jobs. “We want to find out what people want to do that will make them happy,” Sauter said. “What will keep you getting up in the morning.”

One thing Project Re-entry doesn’t do is contract with employers for work, Instead, the organization, which is administered by the NC Criminal Justice Department through the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments and Goodwill Industries, advocates for its clients, who might otherwise be disadvantaged because of their criminal histories.

“We have some minimum-wage people,” Sauter said, “but we also have people making seventy-thousand dollars a year.” Reaves is a cook, a position that draws on the cook school he completed in prison. While inside he also completed a computer class, librarian school, upholstery lessons, HVAC training and electrician courses. He transferred prisons a dozen times during his sentence and took advantage of the different educational opportunities he encountered.

Frequent transfers can hinder an offender’s transition into free society, if the inmate starts Project Re-entry at one prison and then transfers to another institutions where the program isn’t offered. But in Reaves’ case, the transfer policy kept him in the program. From the beginning, he was an ideal candidate.

He enrolled in Project Re-entry because he’d heard good things from former prisoners who had completed the program and gone on to find employment on the outside.

“He was always there,” Sauter said, “always listening, taking notes and asking questions. He just had a warmth that he carries around with him to this day.”

Reaves’ main attribute was his positive attitude, Sauter said. If an ex-offender leaves prison with a chip on his shoulder, he’ll be less likely to stay on the straight and narrow and find constructive employment.

“With a poor attitude, nothing will help,” said Michael Thomas, Goodwill’s Project Re-entry coordinator. “We get a lot of people who are kind of skeptical at first, but then by graduation, you see some different people.”

It’s not just the prisoners that need their minds changed, Thomas said. Employers who base their impressions of ex-offenders on reality TV shows like “Maximum Lockup” also need reeducation.

“It’s incredible how much ignorance is in the world,” he said, “and the fear that people have of ex-offenders.” Sauter said Project Re-entry graduates have more incentive to work hard than the average entry-level employee because they have already suffered the consequences of their mistakes. There are federal tax breaks and other financial incentives for employers who hire ex-offenders, Sauter said, but she doesn’t stress those when making her pitch.

“Those pieces of paper do not come to work every day,” she said. “The people are the ones

who come to work every day.” Which is exactly what Reaves has been doing during the 15 months since his release. The former drug addict also reconnected with his children and grandchildren and is considering going into business for himself. He’s already purchased several pieces of cleaning equipment and is looking into starting a licensed janitorial service. Owning his own business would be the culmination of a long personal journey for Reaves.

“Drugs made me somebody I wasn’t,” he said. “When I was in prison, I remembered that I could get back to who I really was.”

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