Omar Guess was dropped off by his parole officer in front of the homeless shelter on a Friday afternoon. After four years in prison, Guess was finally a free man.
On the car ride back from prison, the officer looked at him through the rearview mirror and asked him what his plans were.
“I’m gonna get my life together,” said Guess, 48 at the time.
“If I had a dime for every person that done told me that,” replied the officer, as Guess recalls.
But Guess’ determination was sincere. He had gone back to prison before, but he had spent the past four years preparing for this moment.
“I made up in my mind that I was going to do the right thing,” Guess said. “I was going to stay close with the right people.”
From prison, he wrote letters to reentry programs across the state and got connected to the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham. The county-funded program supports residents in the community who have had contact with the local criminal justice system.
For Guess, it was going to be his lifeline. But first, he needed to make it to Monday.
Guess, who was four years sober, survived the long and difficult weekend at a shelter where other residents were using drugs. First thing on Monday morning, he walked to the resource center and demanded help. “I cannot stay in there,” he said. “I’m not giving myself a chance.”
That afternoon he was moved into a transitional house.
Guess’ first four days of freedom highlight a few of the many challenges people released from incarceration face. In addition to finding a job and housing (both hard to obtain with a criminal record), oftentimes people coming home are treating substance abuse disorders and undiagnosed mental health issues. They also often lack healthy support systems. But in Durham, a growing network of community organizations — the Durham Local Reentry Council, Welcome Home, Jubilee Home and The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham — are all trying to address the struggles of reentry and give people a second chance.
“We create these insanely high barriers for reentry. And then we’re surprised when people fail,” said Drew Doll, reentry coordinator at the Religious Coalition.
In Durham, approximately 700 people return home from incarceration every year. Statewide, around 38% of those who are incarcerated are reincarcerated within two years.“The fascinating thing to me is not that half of the people are rearrested in three years but that the others aren’t,” Doll said.
“It is tougher out here coming home than it is in there,” Guess said.
The First 48 Hours
The challenges begin the moment you step foot outside the prison. With $45 in your pocket, you have 48 hours to meet with your parole officer. With no ID, no phone and maybe no place to stay, you have to figure out where your officer works and find transportation.
At that first meeting, your parole officer will hopefully provide you with information about Durham’s numerous reentry support programs. Congrats, you have made it through the first 48 hours.
The Durham Local Reentry Council (LRC) at the Criminal Justice Resource Center is typically the first point of contact. Grant-funded, the council works as a networker, providing assistance and connecting people to support services and employment opportunities.
The reentry council is most effective when it can contact inmates before they leave prison. Prior to the pandemic, it received a list of names from the N.C. Department of Public Safety detailing who was about to be released. The council would write letters, assess what services inmates needed in advance and build relationships before the tough challenges began. During the pandemic, those lists stopped coming, making it harder for reentry organizations to do their job.
After incarceration, the most immediate need is housing. About 50% of people leaving prison have no home to return to and request housing. The reentry council can pay for 60 days at transitional houses across the community, giving them a chance to get back on their feet.
“It’s hard to ask an individual to go look for work when he doesn’t know where he is going to sleep,” said Demetrius Lynn, who runs the Durham reentry council.
Once settled, clients work with the council to devise plans that fit their needs. The council connects them with mental health services, substance disorder treatment, job training and other reentry support programs.
Need work boots? The council can help buy them. Need forklift training? It can pay for a class at Durham Tech. Need healthcare? The council will get you connected.
Because of the CJRC and the reentry council, Durham has some of the best reentry support in the state, said Doll. According to Lynn, out of 140 intakes in the county in 2021, only two have returned to prison.
Lynn was formerly incarcerated himself. When he was released, his college degree was useless because no one would give him a job. Years later, Lynn gets frustrated because, at age 48, he is still talking about mistakes he made at 24 years old. “We have to stop looking at the charge and look at the individual,” Lynn said.
For many of his clients, the social isolation that often follows release can be debilitating. One client, who had just served 32 years, said to Lynn, “‘Man, I just rather go back to prison…everybody looks at me like I’m an alien. Nobody understands.’”
Lynn’s solution is to build a network of people who you don’t want to let down. “If you are standing behind me, and if I fall, you are probably gonna catch me? Then I’m not as hesitant about falling,” Lynn said.
A Cruel Bureaucratic Cycle
Welcome Home is a city-run program that offers immediate support after release. They provide a box containing some perishable food, toiletries and a cell phone paid for six months. But according to program creator Chuck Manning, the most valuable service they provide is 30 hours of “peer support.”
Peer support is a form of counseling that centers around lived experience. To be trained as a peer support specialist, you must have had contact with the criminal justice system yourself.
In reentry, it is important to talk with people who know what incarceration feels like, explains Manning, a peer support specialist himself. “You have individuals who can identify with not only the emotional but the mental strain of being away from your family and your loved ones and re-acclimating yourself back into society,” said Manning.
Manning was in and out of the justice system from age 11 to 34. In total, he lived seven years of his life behind bars.
After spending 14 months in jail only for his charges to be dismissed, he swore he would never go back. When he was released in 2015, no one would hire him. To make money, he started his own catering company and worked as an anti-violence activist with Bull City United, a violence interruption program that works to stop shootings in Durham. Four years ago, the City of Durham’s Innovation Team hired him to work on reentry in Durham and he started the Welcome Home program.
For Welcome Home, he manages a caseload of 15-20 people for whom he provides peer support. In addition to running the program, he heads his own nonprofit, Locked up to Living Life, which focuses on reentry, violence interruption and outreach. If that weren’t enough, Manning is currently in the process of contacting every program manager at the 57 prisons across North Carolina to tell them about Welcome Home.
For people involved in the program, the recidivism rate drops to 13%, says Manning.
In the first few weeks home, peer support specialists are key to navigating the numerous logistical issues people face after release.
The first is documentation. To get a job, you need a state-issued ID and social security card. To get an ID, you need a social security card. To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. And to get a birth certificate, you generally need a state-issued ID.
Manning is currently working with a 19-year-old who has been incarcerated since he was ten years old who has never had any form of ID. “We don’t even know where to start with him. Which one do you get first?” Manning said.
It is a cruel bureaucratic cycle, and even with help, it can take weeks to get all the papers together. Which means four to six weeks before it is even possible for someone to find employment.
For at least 9 months, you still owe $40 a month to your parole officer, or you risk being in violation of your parole.
“The day you come out again, nobody tells you this, but you’ve moved from no one expect[ing] you to make decisions, to where everybody expects you to make decisions,” Doll said. “They just expect you to understand that it is now your responsibility to take care of all this stuff.”
Manning wishes that the state, which has all the information, would help inmates gather all this documentation prior to release. “You know, it’s kind of odd that you wouldn’t want to place someone back into society with the best chance of success,” Manning said.
This is Home
Jubilee Home, on the corner of E. Umstead and Dawkins streets, looks innocuous from the outside. Inside, its bright green doors, creaky wooden floors and pinball machine in the living room make it feel warm and homey. The nonprofit provides supportive housing for residents who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The home, which started in January of 2020, grew out of the vision of its founder David Crispell.
As a Duke Divinity student, Crispell worked as a chapel intern in a youth facility. In his final weeks, two teenagers he had grown particularly close with were facing release. One attempted suicide and the other assaulted an officer in order to remain incarcerated, Crispell said.
He was initially angry and frustrated with them.
“Now I recognize that they both looked at the two paths ahead of them. One that’s going home, and one that’s staying incarcerated.”
The two teenage boys were already high-ranking gang officials. That suggests they were likely made to be drug mules from a young age, explained Crispell.
“They recognized that going home was either a path to death or more incarceration. And they chose the easier, or safer path.”
After finishing school, Crispell dreamed of creating a community that those two young men could have joined. Jubilee Home’s initial mission was to serve men ages 17 to 24, but as soon as the pandemic began, the program removed its age restriction and started taking people in.
Jubilee Home has six beds and 24-hour peer support on staff. Three out of five people working on the team are peer support specialists and have dealt with incarceration or substance abuse themselves.
Jubilee Home has a lower barrier to entry than other transitional housing. The program does not have a zero-tolerance use policy for drugs and it accepts people with mental health diagnoses. If Lynn at the LRC thinks someone would be a good fit, he will call Crispell. About once a month, the home has an empty bed available. Most people stay three to four months, but people can stay up to a year.
“We try to make people feel like this is home,” said David Logan, who lives in the house as a 24-hour peer support specialist. “You try to help people learn how to live a normal life.”
Reentry isn’t just about getting a license, a job and a place to live. It is about rebuilding community. That is what the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham is working towards through its reentry faith teams.
Faith teams consist of three to five volunteers from a congregation and a person going through the reentry process. Distinct from many other services, the goal of these groups is not to fix a problem.
The goal is to simply “be with.”
Faith teams gather every other week to eat food, play board games, cook meals and spend time together.
“We’re not trying to fix anybody,” Doll said. “We’re not intentionally trying to change anybody. We’re not trying to do anything other than develop really, really tight friendships. When you’re building friendships, you’re building a network of support.”
At the heart of this work is the value of radical forgiveness. “Infinite belonging says no one is disposable…And boundless compassion says no one has sinned so greatly they are outside the grace of God,” Doll said.
In 2009, after being released from incarceration, Doll was supported by a faith team himself. After a year, he stayed on as a volunteer. He now manages all 22 faith teams across Durham and Orange counties.
The impact goes beyond those who are reentering. Jim Petrea, who leads the faith team at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church, started this work because he wanted to get uncomfortable. At first, making friends with a stranger was a challenge, but now “I don’t have a better friend in the world,” Petrea said.
I told you so
Omar Guess has been out of prison for four years now. He is currently working for the county as a supervisor for the Department of Solid Waste. In February, he began taking classes to get his HVAC certification.
Guess knows the importance of maintaining structure. With the help of his faith team, he recently moved into the apartment above a church. He is eight years clean.
He knows his challenges are not all behind him.
“Everybody is not going to welcome you in with open arms because you are a convicted felon,” Guess said. “You know, that’s a big F on your report card.”
But he tells people his story because he hopes to inspire others in the same position. “I’m a walking testimony,” he said.
He occasionally runs into his old parole officer at his job, who tells him how proud he is of Guess.
And Guess gets to say, “I told you so.”
Above: Drew Doll is reentry coordinator for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Photo by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal