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"It's overwhelming": CFCC and LINC program helps people rebuild their lives after incarceration

An officer stands at the Fresnes Prison in France in September 2016. Fresnes was the first French prison to separate radicalized inmates from the general prison population.
Patrick Kovarik
AFP/Getty Images
Open security gates at a prison.

Making a new life after being locked up presents a dizzying labyrinth of challenges. The Pathway Home program is a $3.9 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that fully funds work by Cape Fear Community College and LINC to help people who are reentering society after being incarcerated.

It was midnight in the middle of summer when Sally was released from incarceration after serving a six-month sentence in New Hanover County.

“So you're coming with nothing, with no one. It's very overwhelming. I had on a pair of jeans, they didn't fit. A pair of like, Dollar General shoes … and a white t-shirt that I wore out of jail," Sally told WHQR.

She sat down with WHQR at Cape Fear Community College to discuss her experiences. To protect her privacy, WHQR is only using her first name.

In order to be released, Sally said she had to have someone pick her up from the facility. That night, Sally ended up rooming with an acquaintance from her life before incarceration.

“And that's another thing: the challenge of the people you know when you get arrested versus the people that you want to associate with when you get out. Because I had somebody come pick me up at midnight. They got a room but it was actually a situation I didn’t need to be in," she said.

It was a dangerous situation — where many people relapse into substance abuse, or return to criminal behavior.

But Sally had an advantage that many don’t. While locked up, she’d connected with Pathway Home. The U.S. Department of Labor program granted almost $4 million to Cape Fear Community College and LINC to provide fair access to the workplace for people coming out of incarceration. The program’s case workers contact people in jail between 20 and 180 days before release. The idea is to prepare people like Sally for the challenges they’re about to face. Big things, like education and employment, healthcare and housing – but little things, too — like what to do in the fraught 48 hours after being released.

When the sun came up on her first day out, Sally left her the motel where she’d spent the night and walked three miles to get to LINC. That’s Leading into New Communities, a non-profit that helps people reintegrate into normal life after incarceration.

“The first time I went to the LINC office, I walked. And I had on really bad shoes. And it was not a very short walk, three miles, I think. It was hot, and the blisters I had on my feet were just — and they were just amazed at the fact that I walked and I was like, well, I’m gonna get here," she said.

In a small, nondescript office off of Randall Parkway, Stephanie Straughn helps connect clients with things like clothing, housing, and going to the DMV to get an ID.

“We try to make sure right out the gate, they're getting into the DMV, they're getting into the Social Security office, just to make sure they have all those basic items or identification. And then from there, then they can start applying for jobs. Kind of getting the ball rolling. But yeah, it really, truly is all the things that we don't even think about that are just second nature for us," Straughn said.

Straughn started with LINC as an intern in 2015, and a few months ago was promoted to Pathway Home program manager. Over the years, she’s learned how the most basic things can be fundamental to a client’s success.

“I remember, early on in the program, we had a client get released. And he went to a rooming house. We set them up, I thought we had everything covered. And he calls me, and he was like, 'um, I don't have any spoons. So I have bowls, and I have food.' And he didn't have a can opener. So he had canned food — I had to run to the Dollar General and get him some spoons and forks and a can opener. So little stuff like that is like, really, really important to consider," Straughn said.

After going to LINC, Sally connected with Sean Donohoe, the CFCC career case manager. He helped her face a common post-incarceration problem: being completely broke, with little or no financial support. Sally, for example, lost her job when she got locked up — and though her mother lives nearby, she’s not in a position to provide substantial support.

“I always tell everyone when they're coming out of these facilities, your first job is not your ideal job, it's a job to get some legal cash. That's all you're going to do. And then you're going to build yourself up. And then we work on the education part," he said.

The Pathway Home program has served clients from almost every prison across the state — all people who were returning to Pender or New Hanover County. Straughn said clients range from teenagers to people in their 70s, more men than women, who have served time for everything from first offenses — like Sally's — to murder charges. While every situation is different, case workers often see the same challenges that Sally faced.

So far, they’ve brought 242 people into the program since launching in the summer of 2021, with a goal of 400 by next summer.

The Department of Labor’s program benchmark is 16% recidivism; according to a spokesperson, the department bases that on the average in each state where it funds a grant program. The college measures this every two weeks after release and, right now, they’re very close — only 17% of CFCC participants have returned to incarceration, compared to the statewide average of 40%.

Ten months into the program, Sally is doing well. She’s in recovery, she has housing, and she’s completed OSHA training and a forklift course at CFCC. Donohoe got to watch her pass the forklift test.

“It was amazing. I was shocked. I was shocked. She did amazing. I got to be there for her testing. And I'm like, 'Oh, my goodness. I couldn't do it.' I was like, No way," Dohone said, adding to Sally, "because you were doing donuts."

Not everyone does this well. As Straughn put it, "not everybody is ready for help." Some relapse into substance abuse or violate probation conditions — although that doesn't mean they're beyond reach for the program. In fact, sometimes a return to incarceration actually helps, in a way.

"We'll have folks do a 90-day for probation violations. And we've gotten them back. We have some of those who are back on the right track and doing really well. We've had some folks who, you know, have pending charges and went back for maybe six months, and then we were able to get them back. And then starting back over with a little more insight," Straughn said. "Typically, what I've seen so far is when they come back, they're doing a little better."

For Sally, one trip to prison was enough — that's why she says she's so driven. That's helped her work her way up to manager at a local restaurant. She knows not every employer will take a chance on a felon, but hopes employers understand how motivated people in her situation can be.

“[What] people I think don't realize about a lot of people who have been incarcerated [...] they will work a lot harder. They have a lot more to lose, maybe. And I'm going to show up to work. If it's, you know, sleet, hail slow….I'm going to work as hard as the person standing next to me, maybe harder. Because I don't want to go back to where I came from, essentially," she said.

Recently, Sally got an apartment of her own. It’s not the nicest place, she says, but it’s hers. Sally knows the next few years will be hard work, but she’s striving for her own version of the “American Dream.”

“I don't want the sun and moon — I want a stable place to live, I want to be comfortable, be able to pay my bills without you know, not being able to eat at the same time. That you know, I guess American dream 50 years ago, I just want a little place that's mine, and to be able to go to work and live a happy life," she said.

CFCC hopes to extend the grant program by 6 months to help catch up from the Covid pandemic — which made numerous aspects of the program more difficult; the college applied for a no-cost extension. But the federal money will run out. And according to a Department of Labor spokesperson, while new rounds of Pathway Home grants can go to the same community, existing grant recipients like CFCC can’t reapply for this particular program — although the spokesperson noted the labor department does have other grants.

But going forward, CFCC, the only community college in the state with a Pathway Home program, hopes it can find other funding to work with people coming out of incarceration.

For Sally, that’s important, because she knows how easy it would be for so many people to end up back in jail or prison.

“I'll say it again, without programs like this, a lot more people would be right back in there," she said. "I mean, you think, North Carolina is 40%, y'all are at 17% — that's 23%, that's a big difference. Hopefully it can get bigger."

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.