North Carolina joins an effort to improve outcomes for freed prisoners

Published 1:52 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2024

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina has joined a nascent nationwide effort to improve outcomes for more prisoners who return to society through an approach focused on education, health care and housing.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed an executive order Monday that seeks to reduce recidivism through formal training and workforce tools for incarcerated people so more can succeed once they are freed.

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More than 18,000 people are released annually from the dozens of North Carolina adult correctional facilities, the order says, facing obstacles to a fresh start from their criminal record.

“Every person deserves the opportunity to live a life of joy, success and love even when we make mistakes,” Cooper said at an Executive Mansion ceremony. “Every single one of us can be redeemed.”

The order aligns with the goals of Reentry 2030, which is being developed by the Council of State Governments and other groups to promote successful offender integration. The council said that North Carolina is the third state to officially join Reentry 2030, after Missouri and Alabama.

North Carolina has set challenging numerical goals while joining Reentry 2030, such as increasing the number of high school and post-secondary degrees or skills credentials earned by incarcerated people by 75% by 2030. And the number of employers formally willing to employ ex-offenders would increase by 30%.

“This is the perfect time for this order, as employers really need workers for the record numbers of jobs that are now being created in our state,” the governor said. “Our state’s correctional facilities are a hidden source of talent.”

The executive order also directs a “whole-of-government” approach, in which Cabinet departments and other state agencies collaborate toward meeting these goals. For example, the state Transportation Department is directed to help provide the Department of Adult Correction information so that incarcerated people can learn how to get driver’s licenses and identification upon their release.

Cooper’s order also tells the Department of Health and Human Services to create ways to prescreen prisoners for federal and state health and welfare benefits before they are freed, and look into whether some Medicaid services can be offered before their release.

The order “charts a new path for us to collaborate with all state agencies to address the needs of justice-involved people in every space,” Adult Correction Secretary Todd Ishee said in a news release.

The governor said there is already funding in place to cover many of the efforts, including new access to Pell Grants for prisoners to pursue post-secondary education designed for them to land jobs once released. But he said he anticipated going to the Republican-controlled General Assembly for assistance to accelerate the initiatives.

Republican legislators have in the past supported other prisoner reentry efforts, particularly creating mechanisms for ex-offenders to remove nonviolent convictions from their records.

Cooper and other ceremony speakers touched on the spiritual aspects of prisoner reentry.

NASCAR team owner and former Super Bowl champion coach Joe Gibbs talked about a program within the “Game Plan for Life” nonprofit he started that helps long-term prisoners get a four-year bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry so they can counsel fellow inmates.

And Greg Singleton, a continuing-education dean at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, is himself an ex-offender, having served four years in prison in the 1990s. The college has educational opportunities inside the state prison and county jail in Sanford. Plans are ahead to expand such assistance to jails in adjoining counties.

“What if God didn’t give second chances — where would any of us be?” Singleton asked. “Oh, but thank God he did, thank God he did.”