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Center for Community Transitions Changes the Narrative Around Criminal Justice

A pathway home

Hanging on the wall of Center for Community Transitions executive director Patrice Funderburg’s office, she has a framed copy of the resolution announced by Mayor Vi Lyles in late February declaring Feb. 25 as Ramona Brant Day in Charlotte.

Brant, who emerged from two decades of incarceration to become a leading advocate for people returning to their communities after spending time in prison, passed away on Feb. 25, 2018. She was a hero to Funderburg.

In the years to come, Feb. 25, 2021, could turn out to be a defining moment in the 47-year history of Center for Community Transitions (CCT), a Charlotte-based organization that hosts a dorm for women leaving incarceration and offers job readiness training and other resources to folks reentering society after serving time in prisons, among other services.

Patrice Funderburg in her office at Center for Community Transitions. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The first Ramona Brant Day in Charlotte history began with an event that was two years in the making. Greater Charlotte Pathways Home: An Executive Convening on Second Chance Employment gathered advocates, judges, elected officials, and employers to speak about the opportunities and value added to a business and society as a whole by hiring justice-involved people, a term describing people with histories of incarceration or criminal records.

To wrap up the summit, a representative with Atrium Health, the area’s largest employer, announced its own commitment to begin hiring justice-involved people through a new Reentry Entrepreneurship Program in which the health-care giant will hire 20 justice-involved people for in-demand jobs at their facilities, help them develop a career plan and follow through with it.

The new program, formed in a partnership with Charlotte-based business accelerator City Startup Labs, did not directly involve CCT, though it shows how the work they’ve been doing to connect employers and advocates is paying off.

CCT announced updates on a partnership of its own that day, taking the next step in its work with the SHRM Foundation, a national equity-hiring firm that is helping CCT launch a local initiative called Getting Talent Back to Work, which SHRM Foundation has been implementing in communities across the country.

The initiative will help local employers “go beyond Ban the Box” — a movement that called on employers to remove any questions about past criminal charges from preliminary job applications — to implement internal assessments of their HR practices to strategize on how to effectively and sustainably create second-chance hiring programs.

For Patrice Funderburg, who in 2016 left her job after spending 25 years working in the corporate HR field, the partnership is a dream come true.

“This is something that the HR side in me has always wanted to do since I got into this work and now it’s literally happening,” she said after the summit. “And we’re partnering with a national organization that has both the reach, resources and the capacity to hold space for that.

“My favorite thing is strategic disruption,” she continued. “This is a strategically disruptive next step to the way that we look at employment, from courting businesses that look to move their businesses here from the whole economic outlook conversation that the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance is looking at, to ensure that we’re looking at all labor pools. That conversation hasn’t happened and it was seeded at the event.”

The Center for Community Transitions
The Center for Community Transitions facility on Old Concord Road in north Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Later that Thursday, news broke that a settlement had been reached in a lawsuit filed against the state by civil rights organizations, three individual incarcerated people, and a spouse of an incarcerated person that challenged the conditions of confinement in North Carolina’s state prisons as unconstitutional during the COVID-19 pandemic. The settlement will result in the early release of at least 3,500 people in state custody over six months, making it one of the largest prison releases during the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

Additionally, the settlement will ensure the state takes measures to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19 in North Carolina’s prisons, including through vaccination and safe testing, cohorting, transfer protocols, monitoring, and complaint processes.

The 3,500 early releases required under the settlement will be in addition to the approximately 16% reduction already achieved since the lawsuit was filed less than a year ago. The current population of 28,659 constitutes the lowest state prison population level since the enactment of Structured Sentencing in October 1994.

In a release on Feb. 25, the Department of Public Safety, which runs the prisons, stated that, over the last year, the department has been “transitioning a select group of people who have nonviolent crimes through the Extended Limits of Confinement (ELC) initiative to complete their sentence in the community in order to reduce the prison population.”

More than 1,000 people have already been transitioned to ELC.

Center for Community Transitions, which houses up to 30 women at a time as they work jobs in the community and finish their sentences, was able to send its first resident home due to ELC last April, followed by a wave of releases that got its population at the north Charlotte facility down to 16.

All in all, Center for Community Transitions saw 19 residents go home early due to ELC. There are now 25 residents at the dorm, though due to a year-long halt in the state’s work-release program during COVID-19, the women staying at CCT have been stuck inside without much to do. Some are completing virtual classes at Central Piedmont Community College, and they’re able to take part in CCT’s two-week LifeWorks employment readiness program, but otherwise, everything has come to a halt.

Funderburg hopes the recent settlement will allow some residents to enter the community and begin to make money, as is usually the purpose of their stay at CCT.

“It’s a good thing particularly for our facility, and we’re just sort of ramping up operations for when we get the word,” Funderburg said. “The good thing about the 180 days is that it’s an accelerated timeline, and not that any of these transfers are easy or simple, there’s a lot that goes into it. The volume will increase, and for us and for me, getting folks home to their communities is a win. The administrative logistics of how it all works is a different story, but if folks can go home then I’m happy about that.”

From trafficking to transportation

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, having a prior conviction reduces employer call back rates by 50% for white men, and 65% for Black men. Poverty and lack of work are leading causes of recidivism, causing people to fall back into criminal behavior as a way to make money.

As North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein pointed out at the Feb. 25 New Pathways Home summit, almost everyone currently in prison will be returning at some point.

“Ninety-five percent of people in state prisons will get out — tens of thousands of people. The question is, what happens when they do?” Stein said. “Because if they come out and find that door after door after door after door is closed to them, it makes it substantially more likely that they will just pursue the path that led them to their involvement with the criminal justice system in the first place. And that is in none of our interests.”

The movement around second-chance employment has gained ground statewide as of late. In June 2020, the Second Chance Act was signed into law, though it didn’t take effect until December. The law allows certain charges and convictions to be expunged from someone’s record, and also sets up automatic expungements for people who are found not guilty or have charges against them dismissed.

Also sitting in committee in the North Carolina General Assembly is the Freedom to Work Act, filed in May 2020, which would prohibit licensors from denying someone a professional license or needed credential — such as a cosmetology license or barber’s license — due to a criminal conviction.

For Funderburg, who left the Leading on Opportunity Council in 2019 because of her fellow members’ refusal to prioritize criminal justice as a focal point, seeing so many in the community now come together around this issue has driven her to take the work further.

“It’s about changing the narrative. Our conversation around air-quote ‘criminal justice’ is about policing and it’s about officer-friendly relations and law enforcement and violence prevention,” she told Queen City Nerve. “All of those things are part of the larger umbrella, but what we have been spoon-fed in terms of criminal justice here in Mecklenburg County has been about the policing and law enforcement side, not the reentry and transition and reducing recidivism side. In the bigger picture, those things connect. If we didn’t have all these issues with police, we wouldn’t end up in situations of incarceration. That’s the pathway.”   

For Ebony Thomas Yakout, her pathway home came through Center for Community Transitions in 2017 after she had served eight years of a 10-year sentence on a trafficking conspiracy charge for being caught with 20 pounds of marijuana. As she neared the end of her sentence, she moved to the CCT dorm on Old Concord Road and began going through the organization’s heralded LifeWorks program.

In the program, she learned how to write a resume, and was told how she could get her cosmetology license renewed, as it had expired during her incarceration. She took classes at CPCC, got a job working at a local hotel and lined up an apartment for when she would be released.

Starting in housekeeping at the hotel, Yakout was then promoted to the front desk, where she worked through the rest of her sentence. Eventually, she began driving guests to and from events, acting as the hotel’s shuttle service, which inspired her to start her own business, V.M. Transportation Service. During the pandemic, she’s pivoted to transporting freight rather than people in her two sprinter vans.

The Center for Community Transitions
Ebony Thomas Yakout

Yakout credits CCT with not only helping with tangible resources but allowing her to look differently at her whole experience.

“They taught me how to embrace my criminal background, and when I say embrace it, I mean don’t be ashamed of it, learn how to work around it. Explain, ‘This is what it was. That was then and this is now. That has no bearing on where I’m trying to go today,’” she told Queen City Nerve. “A lot of people be embarrassed. You have to explain your criminal background. That’s embarrassing. They taught me how to embrace that and don’t be ashamed. That was my past. Make a bigger future, that’s what it taught me.”

Yakout said she spent $800 in application fees for apartments before finally getting accepted. The constant need to explain her record to people to receive the most mundane services has inspired her to get more involved in reentry advocacy.

“When I came home my felony was exactly 10 years old, and still I have to explain it, and that’s the worst part of it, when you’re trying to get your life together, it’s hard,” Yakout said. “If I wouldn’t have had CCT, I can definitely tell you, I would have went back selling drugs. This is the thing, what I tried to get the prison system to understand, think about all the other women who don’t get to come to that halfway house, that don’t get the privileges of finding a job. Ten years is a long time. When you come home from 10 years you have absolutely nothing. What do you have? They just let you out into society. When you’re released from prison, you’re just released. So what are those women supposed to do?”

Now, as Funderburg and her staff prepare for an influx of reentries, some of whom will come through her facility and many won’t, she’ll continue her work to answer Yakout’s question, all the while changing the narrative as it exists in Mecklenburg County.

“We lower recidivism when we change the narrative, and the expectation about people who are justice-involved,” Funderburg said. “We can put the math around that, and there’s math that is already out there, but this is how we reduce recidivism and improve employee outcomes, public safety, and savings to the community. Our cost per graduate of our employment program, if they get a living-wage job, which this is intended to open up the employer pool of available jobs, is a savings to the community, and that changes the statistic around poverty being the strongest indicator of recidivism. If employers want to be down for that, we’re here for it.”

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