The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, working with a large number of community partners, is forming a new Guilford County Reentry Council meant to help find jobs, provide life skills and offer other services to inmates released from the county’s two jails or from state or federal prison.
County officials say that, just as the Guilford County Family Justice Center is a “one-stop shop” that combines multiple community resources to address domestic violence and related issues, the Reentry Council will be a one-stop resource where former inmates will be able to get help with finding jobs, housing, access to mental health and substance abuse services, and a wide range of other services.
Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Major Chuck Williamson said the council should help decrease recidivism, and he added that it will allow former inmates greater opportunities to become productive and healthy members of society. He said a wide range of community resource groups will participate in the program.
“This will bring everyone together under one umbrella,” Williamson said.
He added that $150,000 in state grant money for the program that was expected in October was delayed after Hurricane Mathew demanded the attention of state officials. He said that grant will, among other things, fund the hiring of a reentry coordinator, who will interview those released from incarceration to determine their needs and also help bring all the resources together. Other partners, such as the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) – a day shelter for the homeless – will play a role as well. For instance, Williamson said, the IRC may be a place where former inmates can receive mail.
Williamson said inmates are often released with no idea of where to go or what to do. He said many don’t have the usual connections other people do to help them get back on their feet.
“A lot of people don’t have family support,” Williamson said.
He also said they may not know how to find a job or arrange transportation to work. In some cases, they may lack interview skills or the other abilities necessary for success in a life out of jail.
Williamson said that some services to help former inmates already exist in Guilford County, but currently ex-inmates might have no knowledge that those support services are available or understand how to access them. Likewise, he added, right now community partners who are more than willing to help may not be able to find former inmates in need of their services.
“It will help local providers do what they do,” Williamson said of the Reentry Council.
He added that the program will help former inmates from both county jails as well as formerly incarcerated individuals from state and federal prisons. The council will have two offices.
“We will open an office in High Point and in Greensboro to serve both areas,” Williamson said.
A meeting of the council’s founding partners is planned for early January. No board of directors has been assembled yet, but Williamson said the board could include county commissioners who have worked closely with inmate welfare programs in the past, such as Commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Ray Trapp, and it could also include former inmates.
Williamson said there will be a mental health component to the program as well.
He said that he was eager to get the program in place as soon as possible and that the original goal was to have it up and running by the end of 2016. However, the delay in state grant funds the county expected put off the creation of the Reentry Council until now.
Guilford County has studied a similar Durham County service that is very well regarded. Durham County’s Reentry Program is “designed to facilitate the smooth return of offenders into the community after incarceration … The program provides various support services through collaborative supervision without compromising public safety.”
That program works with partners such as the Durham Police Department, the Parole Commission and the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.
Durham County also offers a connected recidivism reduction program and a “second chance” program for drug offenders to help them deal with substance abuse problems. The programs work with halfway houses and with Durham Technical Community College’s GED programs and Adult Basic Education programs. Durham County programs also offer career development and behavioral health programs for former inmates.
Trapp said he believes the Reentry Council is greatly needed in Guilford County but he added that he’s wary of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department running the show.
“I don’t have a problem with the Reentry Council,” Trapp said. “I just don’t want it at the jail. I’m not sure the Sheriff’s Department is the right one to oversee it. I have a great relationship with Williamson, but I also question if anyone from the department should take the lead.”
Trapp said those people who just got out of jail probably aren’t greatly inclined to make trips back there for any reason. He said the more the Reentry Council seems to be a Sheriff’s Department initiative, the less likely former inmates will be interested in using the services it offers.
“Anyone who’s dealt with it knows that once you leave jail you don’t want to go back,” Trapp said.
He also said he wants a good deal of input on how the services are provided to come from those other than county commissioners, county administrators or Sheriff’s Department officers.
“I am 100 percent in favor of the Reentry Council,” he said, “but it can’t be the usual suspects. You’ve got to bring in some unconventional partners.”
He cited examples of potential program partners that would have a lot to contribute as New Zion Baptist Church, Stop the Violence Movement and GrassROOTS Community Foundation.
“I’m just not sure if they are on the radar of the Sheriff’s Department,” he said of those organizations.
Several court and county services will be involved as well.
Guilford County Pretrial Services Program Manager Karen Moore said that former Program Manager Wheaton Casey had done some work in support of the effort before retiring a few months ago. Moore said Pretrial Services also provided some statistical information that was used in the grant request. She said that, as of yet, no specific request had been made of Pretrial Services in regard to the new program, but she added that her office is committed to things that will aid former inmates and help reduce recidivism rates.
“Of course we would always be supportive,” Moore said.
Pretrial Services currently interviews and researches jail inmates to discover their employment status, criminal records and life circumstances, and it helps speed up the court system by having that information available for judges and other court officials. Pretrial Services also monitors some inmates who are awaiting trial out of jail and helps make sure they show up for court. In recent years, the office has also begun doing things such as connecting inmates with help for their substance abuse problems and mental health issues.
Moore said that many inmates are in need of behavioral skills.
“There’s a great need to equip them with those skills,” Moore said.
Many of those who are held in the county’s jail are habitual offenders who come through like they are going through a revolving door and the new program is seen as way to help them get on the right track with jobs, education, substance treatment and other services the next time they are released from jail or prison.
Usually inmates are held in county jail until their trial and then, if found guilty, sent to state prison, or, if found innocent, released. Ideally, it does not take long to bring a case to trial, but some inmates end up awaiting trial in the county jail for months or even years. One inmate held on a murder charge a few years ago was held the Guilford County jail for five years before trial.