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By John Tate, III

We need to be careful about the jaundiced eye that many of us take towards the prison population in our state and our country. Winding up in prison can be as much a result of the zip code we were born in as it is a reflection of personal virtue or vice.

cctIn my experience as board chair of the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte, the vast majority of folks leaving prison are good people who made a mistake and are looking for a second chance. Usually that means finding a job that will enable them to provide for their families. Returning to prison is not a desirable option for them.

At the Center, it’s our goal to help people leaving prison transition back into society and into gainful employment, and to support their families, particularly their children, while they are incarcerated.

In Mecklenburg county schools, we estimate that upwards of 5,000 children have a parent or loved one in prison. These children are subject to stigma among their peers, with their home situations often unstable, economically and otherwise. Such circumstances can lead to toxic levels of stress that can have a devastating impact on a child’s development, learning, and behavior.

Families Doing Time is a program that we’ve launched to provide family members of incarcerated individuals with the social and practical support that they need to cope during this extremely challenging time. The services we offer range from family reunification planning to school-based support groups for kids.

Here’s what one teacher at Winterfield Elementary had to say about the impact of peer support groups for a child in her class: “Bernard jumped on me, yelled at me and has thrown things at me since his mom has gone to jail. He needed skills to help him cope with his feelings. Since EKWIP [peer support group], Bernard’s behavior and anger has improved greatly.”

When parents leave prison, children need their financial and emotional support. That can be a tall order for someone with a criminal record and limited education who spent several years deprived of normal family interactions and responsibilities. This is where our LifeWorks! program and Center for Women come in.

LifeWorks! is primarily focused on helping recently released individuals find employment. The foundational program of Lifeworks! is a two-week workshop in which participants learn how to market their skills while learning to live with their criminal history.

The Center for Women is a 30-bed residential program for women that prepares them to return to their communities and families. All residents participate in the LifeWorks! program in addition to counseling, volunteer activities, home leave, and transition planning. In the last 28 years, 87% of the residents have successfully reentered their family and community.

The work that we’re doing at the Center for Community Transitions is important, but it’s not enough. Our resources limit us to serve a relatively small number of the families who need our services. The need for our services simply outstrips our ability.

As a state and a society, we need to do a better job of keeping people out of prison in the first place. That means ensuring that every North Carolinian, regardless of zip code, should have the opportunity to get a solid education and be prepared for life. If we can do a better job educating and supporting children early on, we will reap tremendous benefits in terms of reduced crime, greater productivity, and happier, healthier families down the road.

To learn more about the Center for Community Transitions, visit their website at http://www.centerforcommunitytransitions.org.

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