WILMINGTON — Re-entering society after prison is no easy task. There’s a criminal record to disclose on job applications, often no stable home to return to and the temptation to return to old vices.
Add “pandemic” to that list and the challenge becomes unparalleled.
That’s when organizations like Leading Into New Communities, Inc. (LINC) are needed. The nonprofit guides men and women through the struggles of returning to life after jail or prison.
For a while, the organization was on lockdown, and so were its residents in the re-entry program; the goal of which is to shelter people recently released from prison while they find stable jobs, then transition them into permanent housing.
“That couldn’t happen if they were not allowed to seek employment,” Vincent Burgess, resident manager, said. “We made it through, and now we are seeing residents progressing and fulfilling their goals.”
Founding the Robert campus
Two decades ago, LINC was born out of the back of Frankie Roberts’ barber shop.
The idea for the nonprofit was inspired by Roberts’ experience with his older brother Marvin, who the transitional living campus is now named after.
A Vietnam Vet, Marvin struggled with a heroin addiction that landed him behind bars. He passed away in 1998, just hours before Roberts was planning on apologizing for misunderstanding and mistreating him.
“God had pretty much let me know, if it wasn’t for his grace that could’ve been me,” Roberts said. “I could’ve been my brother very easily.”
For the first two years, LINC was run by volunteers. The nonprofit later received funding to hire three employees and move into an office on Castle Street, where it launched a men-only residential program with 10 beds.
In September 2012, LINC expanded the facility. It converted an old jail into the transitional housing that now exists on Division Drive.
Today LINC employs 22 people and has enough capacity to house 45 residents, both men and women. The campus averages between 33 and 37 residents each day and can accommodate two women who are pregnant or have infants.
The organization has seen an influx of residents coming into its transitional housing program this year, as efforts to alleviate crowding in correctional facilities during the pandemic continue. LINC has beds for people serving extended limits of confinement, which allows certain incarcerated offenders to continue their sentence outside of correctional facilities.
The organization accepts people that are at moderate to high risk of recidivism, measured through a risk-need-responsivity test.
“We primarily work with people that the average agency or organization wouldn’t take,” Roberts said.
While taking in these vulnerable populations, LINC has survived multiple hurricanes, and a recession before – but a pandemic is a scenario unlike any of the others in LINC’s 20 years of existence.
‘Doc, is this thing for real?’
Back in March, when the pandemic first started, Roberts called the chief physician at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Dr. Philip Brown, for advice.
“I said, ‘Doc, is this thing for real?’ He said, ‘Frankie, it is,’” Roberts recalled.
The executive director of the nonprofit listened as Brown explained what precautions needed to happen and recommended he create quarantine space in the facility.
LINC ordered personal protective equipment and installed a sink on the front porch for people to wash their hands as they entered the building. They created one access point to monitor everyone coming in and out and take temperatures twice a day.
As Covid-19 remains a threat to congregate living facilities, those entering LINC’s program are required to quarantine off campus until they receive a negative test, either in a hotel or an off-site house owned by LINC.
“If a person didn’t feel well, we didn’t wait to talk about it, we sent them to the hospital,” Roberts said.
It was as early into the pandemic as April when the virus arrived at LINC’s doorstep. A young woman checked in on a Friday. By Sunday she was feeling unwell.
Roberts said the woman was taken to the emergency room, where she tested positive for Covid-19 and was admitted to the hospital for several days. She then moved to the United Way quarantine program for discharged coronavirus patients who lack a safe place to continue isolating.
Five people were exposed, including one employee, during the woman’s shortened stay. They either quarantined at home for 14 days or took tests, all which came back negative.
“We dodged a bullet,” Roberts said.
Isolation, all over again
LINC has followed the governor’s orders. At first, it only allowed people with essential jobs to leave campus. Visitation was outside and in practice with CDC standards.
Some residents at LINC had been in prison multiple decades and were released mid-Covid-19. They hadn’t seen friends and family other than in restricted visitations, or sometimes not at all. They had been confined to a facility and were once again being told to stay in place, once they thought they were free.
“People were leaving prison and felt like they were in prison again,” Roberts said. “It created a lot of stress. A whole lot of stress. I mean, I have never been in prison so I’m not able to articulate what a person is feeling. But I know what I’m feeling – the isolation – so I can only imagine.”
Roberts said some residents suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, which is not unfamiliar to LINC. Before the pandemic, LINC visited the UNCW Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion for a joint event, and the residents had strong reactions to one of the chain gates that separated part of the building.
“We had two people have anxiety attacks because of how that made them feel,” Roberts said.
The restrictions also created tension on the campus as residents grew to resent staff who left the property.
“When the governor started opening things up, it got a little better, but it is definitely not where it used to be before the pandemic,” Roberts said.
Three weeks ago, LINC started providing day passes to compliant residents to leave between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Before the pandemic residents could come and go as they pleased, as long as they returned by their curfew.
The second problem
Besides the mental effects of isolation, Roberts said affordable housing is another one of the greatest challenges LINC is facing.
The nonprofit has already dealt with a housing issue, especially after Hurricane Florence when many apartment buildings were damaged and shuttered, displacing people across the region.
Now it’s happening again as Covid-19 exacerbates Wilmington’s already existing affordable housing problem.
LINC has had to extend some residents’ stays due to the setback.
Roberts has also noticed more residents are entering the facility after living on the streets as a result of lost housing. People who have served prison time are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative.
The pandemic may have actually provided a boost to people with criminal histories during their job hunt, Roberts suspects.
Some people who were receiving $600 unemployment benefits, more than their normal incomes, were in no rush to get back to work when businesses reopened – but people at LINC were.
“Our residents would be like, ‘Let me get that,’” Roberts joked. “Literally we had some agencies calling us and coming by, saying, ‘You have people that can work?’ It created opportunity for us.”
Residents with nonessential jobs were allowed to go to work when Gov. Roy Cooper moved the state into Phase 2. At one point there were 26 residents working, which is a lot for the campus to have at one time, according to Roberts.
“It used to – because of criminal history – take our folks a lot longer to find employment, but once the pandemic hit and the opportunity presented itself, our residents were able to get jobs immediately,” Roberts said.
However, LINC is wary the economic downturn could cause problems in the future, as the effects of the pandemic linger. Some of the businesses that give jobs to their people are struggling. One of the popular food chains that is open to hiring LINC residents has cut its hours, leaving less time for workers to earn money.
With restrictions relaxing, residents of LINC are getting back on their feet and starting to rebuild their lives. The hope is the current rising wave of Covid-19 won’t threaten any of that progress.