Seven Hundred People Return to Durham From Prison Each Year. A Homecoming Celebration Aims to Welcome Them With Open Arms. | Durham County | Indy Week
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Seven Hundred People Return to Durham From Prison Each Year. A Homecoming Celebration Aims to Welcome Them With Open Arms. 

click to enlarge William Ellmore speaks at the first-annual Durham Reentry Homecoming.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

William Ellmore speaks at the first-annual Durham Reentry Homecoming.

On Thursday night, a crowd lined the wooden pews in the sanctuary of Durham's First Presbyterian Church. As one might expect, there was prayer, singing, and references to Bible verses. But this was no ordinary service. It was a celebration—in the spirit of traditional church homecomings across the South—of the seven hundred or so people who come home to Durham from prison each year.

The Reentry Homecoming was a joint effort of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and the county's Local Reentry Council, which formed last year to coordinate reentry services. While it's the first time the coalition has thrown this kind of public event for returning residents, it's been working with the county's Criminal Justice Resource Center for about fifteen years to help residents make that transition.

While the CJRC and the Reentry Council connect returning residents to jobs, housing, and other resources, "faith teams" trained by the Religious Coalition provide companionship, support, and a sense of accountability. Each team and its partner, as returning residents are known in the program, enter into a year-long commitment to an honest, judgment-free friendship. The coalition is about to train its twentieth faith team.

"When it gets really cool is when they start arguing with each other about who has benefited the most, about how much they've learned that they didn't know or how they've gotten this different perspective," says coalition director Ben Haas. "That's the space we get really excited about because it starts to reopen or open these really different ways of understanding what community can look like."

The work is rooted in the idea that all people have an inherent worth and potential that is not diminished by their mistakes. Thursday's homecoming served to acknowledge not only that worth but also the ways in which society has allowed systems of mass incarceration that dehumanize people, even after they've served their time, to continue.

The wraparound approach CJRC and the Coalition create is necessary because of the barriers returning residents face.

Private- and public-housing landlords may deny a potential tenant based on criminal history. People with records may be barred from jobs, professional licenses, public assistance, and rights like voting. According to the NC Justice Center, more than nine hundred state and federal laws "deny rights and privileges" to the approximately 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records.

About 92 percent of employers in the state conduct criminal background checks on applicants, according to the Justice Center. While many employers in Durham have agreed to "ban the box" on job applications asking if applicants have been convicted of a crime, Demetrius Lynn, the Local Reentry Council's job placement specialist, says it can still be difficult for justice-involved individuals to find work; many earned certifications during their time in prison, but because they were locked up, they don't have hands-on experience in the job they want.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, between 60 and 75 percent of people are unemployed one year after returning from the state's prisons. This lack of opportunity—coupled with the pressure to provide for family that has been living without the person's income or to fall back in with an old social network—adds to the risk of reoffending. Among people who left North Carolina prisons in 2013, 48 percent were re-arrested within two years, and 21 percent were re-incarcerated.

"Too often, people who are still in prison are forgotten until they get released. Reentry starts inside," said William Ellmore, one of three speakers Thursday night. Ellmore spent twenty-five years in prison before starting a support group for the families of people who are incarcerated.

Wilbert Pipkin said he spent eight years in prison and left "angry with the system," but eventually he was persuaded to join the county's reentry program and work with a faith team. He says it was the best thing that's ever happened to him.

"People began to show me love, and it was something I hadn't felt before," he told the crowd.

A third speaker, who asked not to be identified in this story, says working with the Religious Coalition taught him to take responsibility for his actions. Five years after his release from prison, he's still close friends with a team that began writing to him inside, before he returned to a Durham that had drastically changed during his seven-year sentence. With their support, he's started a business flipping houses and doing landscape work—and he makes a point to hire people with criminal records.

"These four volunteers chose to help a stranger, and I wasn't going to waste their time," he says.

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