By Rachel Crumpler

Kitendo Smith has a job at NC State University. He rides the bus to work and anywhere else he needs to go. He is living independently in his own space in Wake County. 

It’s a dream for Smith who three months ago didn’t know this life was possible. 

“I’ve never been this established, never in my life, in my 33 years of living,” he said.

On May 31, after spending six years at Scotland Correctional Institution, Smith was released from the state men’s prison in eastern North Carolina. 

It wasn’t the first time he had been at this juncture of reentry. His past attempts transitioning from incarceration — establishing a stable life for himself outside of prison walls — had failed.

That’s not uncommon. 

An April 2022 report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission found a 49 percent recidivist arrest rate within two years from a sample of 16,340 individuals released from prison in 2019. The same sample had a 20 percent recidivist conviction rate and a 36 percent recidivist incarceration rate within two years of release from prison. The measure of how often a person reoffends and is reincarcerated is incomplete as it only accounts for time spent in the state prison system, not any time spent in local jails due to lack of statewide jail data.

But, for Smith, who is labeled as a habitual offender by the state, this time has felt different from day one. 

Kitendo Smith was released from prison about three months ago and is part of the Alliance of Disability Advocates’ reentry initiative, which brings tailored plans and support to those transitioning to life after prison. Credit: Wayne Bell / Alliance of Disability Advocates

What’s made the difference this time? Individualized support.

Before leaving prison, Smith had a reentry plan in hand — a plan prepared specifically for him based on his needs and wants as part of an Alliance of Disability Advocates reentry initiative, “Justice: Release, Reentry, and Reintegration,” funded by the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities.

The initiative’s goal is to improve transition outcomes after incarceration for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities — folks overrepresented in the prison system. 

Since the reentry initiative began in April 2020, it has served 125 individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities from 13 state prisons. Currently, 86 percent of program participants have not reoffended and returned to prison. According to the NC Department of Public Safety, it costs an average of $35,009 in taxpayer funds to house one person in prison for a year. Staff from the Alliance of Disability Advocates say that even with the program’s $300,000 annual price tag, it’s a terrific return on investment. 

“Every time I come home, I do the same thing over and over but with the assistance, it went different,” Smith said. “I think the cycle stopped. I just got to keep doing right like I’m doing right now.”

Justice: Release, Reentry, and Reintegration initiative at a glance

  • Operated by a staff of three
  • Have prepared 125 individualized reentry plans to date for people with planned releases from 13 state prisons across North Carolina
  • The reentry program currently has an 86 percent success rate of participants not reoffending
  • Its three-year grant funding expires in September 2023
  • Initiative staff are seeking $300,000 annually from other funding sources to sustain the program at its current level in future years

From ‘cookie cutter’ to individualized 

For Program Manager Sharif Brown ​​of Raleigh’s Alliance of Disability Advocates, helping individuals with reentry is more than a job. It’s personal. 

Sharif Brown, program manager for a state prison reentry initiative for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Alliance of Disability Advocates. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sharif Brown

He started helping incarcerated individuals adjust to life after prison in 2016, after he got the opportunity to do transitional work at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in Granville County. It was an opportunity Brown jumped at. His brother has been incarcerated several times in New York City and he’s seen the challenge of reentry — primarily the lack of direction and stigma many face. 

Each year, more than 22,000 individuals are released from North Carolina’s state prison system, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. This means 98 percent of people currently incarcerated will eventually be released back into society, but it’s not often a smooth transition. The COVID pandemic further complicated reentry as many in-person services were limited.

Brown said the likelihood of a successful transition from prison, particularly for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is low without proper planning, training and support.

According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics released in March 2021, nearly 38 percent of state and federal prisoners nationwide reported at least one disability in 2016 with the most common type being a cognitive disability. The prevalence of disability in the prison system is about two and half times greater than the 15 percent of people reporting disabilities in the U.S. general population, the report states.

The typical reentry resources provided by prisons are often “cookie cutter” plans due to the small number of case managers compared to the number of individuals being released. The generic, broad information doesn’t often fit an incarcerated individual’s needs, Brown said.

Recognizing this gap, Brown saw the need for individualized reentry plans, and that’s what he has brought to incarcerated individuals through the Alliance of Disability Advocates program at Butner. After he helped his first person who was leaving prison after 20 years of incarceration, he said word spread throughout the facility.

“My caseload went from one to 100 in about three months because everyone wanted this reentry service because it was individualized,” Brown said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter situation.”

By the time he stopped his work at Butner when COVID hit the prison system, Brown had provided over 200 individuals with individualized reentry plans prior to their release. Of all the individuals enrolled in the reentry program, Brown said 98 percent have not reoffended in the first two years after release. In October, the reentry program at Butner will resume.

Reentry initiative in state prisons

With a three-year grant starting in April 2020 from the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities, Brown had to overcome pandemic-created logistical hurdles to roll out his individualized reentry plans at the state prison level in 2020 to incarcerated individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

His prior reentry work at Butner had been in person, but with high COVID infection rates throughout the state’s prisons, Brown was not initially permitted inside as in-person visitation was cut. 

“I had to come up with another way to be able to facilitate this program without having any direct contact, which is where all of this really happens because the individualized reentry process is about asking the individual what they need for their reentry and then constructing a plan for when they get out,” Brown said.

To adjust to the remote environment, he designed a questionnaire with 15 questions to extract the information needed to construct the individualized reentry plans that he sent to prisons for incarcerated individuals to review — even revise — before their release. Brown said it’s essential to empower individuals to make their own reentry goals.

In April 2022, halfway through the grant funding, Brown and the initiative’s two other staff members finally were able to go into the prisons in person as volunteers. 

Plans are prepared for any of the state’s 100 counties and even if people are being released in the same county, their plans might not look the same because each person may have different needs. 

Staff will go in person to deliver the majority of individualized reentry plans and help with any needed independent living skills.

Individualized reentry plans can connect individuals to:

  • Housing opportunities
  • Employment assistance and interview prep training
  • Food pantry resources and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) information
  • Free business and business casual clothing
  • Benefits assistance and counseling
  • Independent living skills training
  • Free individualized GED training and testing with Duke University
  • Behavioral and mental health resource information
  • Peer recovery support services and mentoring
  • Vital records (birth certificate, social security card)
  • Post-release social services for those in the Alliance of Disability Advocates’ catchment area of Wake, Durham, Johnson, Orange and Franklin counties

‘A life GPS’

Wayne Bell, one of the initiative’s reentry and peer support specialists, said the individualized reentry plan is crucial to put in place prior to release. It’s made a difference for many he’s helped, such as Smith.

“He had like a GPS — a life GPS — on the things that he knew he needed and wanted to do and the steps, the resources, the addresses and emails that lined up to go toward his goal,” Bell said.

Brown said there have been many times when he has given an individualized plan to someone and when they looked at it, broke down, saying, “This is everything I asked for.”

That’s something that was lacking for James Smith, the initiative’s other reentry and peer support specialist, when he was released from prison in 2016. He felt overlooked and lost in a system, only being provided with standardized information that didn’t help him plan. It came down to the prison’s case managers being overworked, he said, and having caseloads too packed to provide tailored support. 

It didn’t help that he says he never got a call back when he reached out for help post-release.

“When I got out, the challenge was having someone that I feel like cared,” James Smith said. “If it weren’t for my sister and then I met my wife, if it wasn’t for them coming into my life and coaching me and helping me, I probably could have easily reoffended.”

James Smith strives to be a support for individuals leaving prison. He currently works with about 20 recently released individuals helping to address their needs. For the first weeks after release, this often involves daily contact — much of that in person. He works one on one with individuals to complete applications, secure housing, find mental health services and more.

Building relationships, even while people are still incarcerated, and setting the goals that they want to accomplish post-release is key to the reentry program’s lower recidivism rates, James Smith said.

Kitendo Smith said he was pleasantly surprised by this level of direct service, which he did not receive at any of his past releases. It helped him not get sidetracked, he said. 

Smith met Bell for the first time three days after he got out of prison. Bell parked his car and jumped on the bus with Smith to explain the routes so he would have a form of transportation. That same day they rode together to the DMV to get Smith an ID card. 

For Bell, seeing formerly incarcerated individuals living as independently as possible within the bounds of the law is the ultimate goal. For individuals committed to finding a better path, the program has had great success, but he says some enrollees lack the buy-in, don’t follow the individualized reentry plan and reoffend, such as the very first person he worked with who returned to prison within days of his release. 

Making an impact

Staff from the Alliance of Disability Advocates who run the reentry program recognize the individualized reentry plans aren’t the only thing keeping people from reoffending, but say it certainly helps. They think the lower rates of recidivism among those enrolled in the program prove that. 

“Every single individual that has been enrolled in this program has either said one of two things,” Brown said. “They either have never seen a program like this ever in their life or they wish that this program was either accessible to them before we got to them or we need to think about implementing this on every single level of incarceration because, according to the individuals that we’re serving, the program works.”

But Brown is already concerned about finding the reentry program’s next funder. He doesn’t want this work to end when the current grant funding expires in a year. 

It’ll take $300,000 per year to sustain the program at its current level, Brown said.

If the reentry program kept just nine people from reoffending and returning to prison each year, it would pay for itself, but it’s already doing much more than that, Brown said. He said it’s worth the outlay to — in the end — save the state money and establish futures for formerly incarcerated individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“This program did change my life,” Kitendo Smith said.

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Rachel Crumpler

Rachel Crumpler is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health. She graduated in 2022 from UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in journalism and minors in history and social...