By Rachel Crumpler
At age 19, Craig Waleed had just entered a New York state prison. He was angry and afraid.
As Waleed explains, he’d fallen in love with the streets and their offerings — enamored with the gangs, bars and drugs. Observing the behavior in his neighborhoods, he thought it was the way Black men needed to conduct themselves, so that’s what he emulated.
In high school, Waleed quit sports and turned to drugs and alcohol of all kinds. He started to commit crimes to get money to pay for his substance use. Eventually, an assault landed him in prison for eight years.
Early into his sentence, he knew he didn’t ever want to return to prison — the strip searches, the confines of a cell, the dehumanization.
Waleed realized he needed to chart a new path.
He turned to education, reading all sorts of books and taking college courses. He looked within, working through the trauma of his childhood sexual abuse. He found a group of individuals behind bars that wanted to use their time productively as well.
Still, his release was daunting. He wasn’t blind to recidivism trends and knew stigma came with his record.
But Waleed made it.
Now 52, he’s a married father of two boys living in Raleigh. He has earned four degrees, including a doctorate. He’s written three books. He is project manager for Unlock the Box, a campaign against solitary confinement, at Disability Rights NC.
He’s on a mission to show others that successful reentry to society is possible. That’s the goal of his weekly podcast, Prison to Promise.
In each episode, Waleed chats with a formerly incarcerated person who shares their story and strategies they used to avoid returning to prison, as well as what they are doing now to create purpose-driven lives.
“My efforts are to save souls, to save lives, to help people tap into their own richness — their own potential,” Waleed said. “I want folks to realize that they can be successful post-incarceration, and they don’t have to continue to live up to the expectations of what this society expects of people who’ve been to prison.
“I would like to call this the antithesis of expectations of people who’ve been incarcerated.”
Reentering society after incarceration isn’t easy. It’s all too common for people to reoffend and land back in prison.
That’s because barriers to reentry can be too challenging to surmount. Once released, it is more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals, compared with the general population, to find jobs, secure stable housing and function in society.
There’s a stigma that follows people with criminal records, Waleed said: “It’s a lifetime sentence, no matter how much time you’ve done.”
The latest U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, released in 2021, analyzed the recidivism rate of a sample of prisoners released from 24 states in 2008 over a 10-year period. The data revealed that about 66 percent of prisoners were re-arrested within three years, and 82 percent were re-arrested within 10 years.
About half of the people in the sample returned to prison within three years, either for violating the conditions of their release or with a new sentence. Within 10 years, 61 percent returned to prison.
Recidivism is also a problem in North Carolina. More than 22,000 individuals are released from the state’s prisons every year.
An April 2022 report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission followed a sample of 16,340 people released from prison in 2019. The report found a 49 percent re-arrest rate for those people within two years. That same sample had a 20 percent recidivist conviction rate. Between those new convictions and people sent back to prison for parole violations, the group studied had a total 36 percent re-incarceration rate within two years of release.
The data shows that certain groups have higher recidivist arrest rates. In particular, high school dropouts, youth offenders and prisoners with substance use problems are more likely to return to prison. Additionally, individuals released from close custody — the highest security level — and individuals who spent time in restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement, had higher recidivism rates compared with the overall group.
In contrast, the report found that incarcerated people with correctional jobs or those who participated in prison programming had lower recidivism rates.
Recidivist arrests largely occur within the first year, with the average time to re-arrest being eight months, according to the report.
“Recidivist activity, in terms of volume, declines over the two-year period,” said Michelle Hall, executive director of the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. She presented the recidivism data to state lawmakers on Feb. 9. “Most happens early, and then we see that decline over time, which points to the fact that effective interventions, sanctions programs and services should really occur as soon as possible in order to prevent reoffending.”
Amplifying lived experience
Even while incarcerated, Waleed said his goal was to help empower other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with tools for a successful reentry.
He’s stayed committed to that purpose all these years, launching his podcast last March. A new episode is released every Thursday.
Waleed built a successful life after prison, and he wants others to know they can too. That’s easier when there are examples to emulate, he said.
In the first episode, Waleed shared his own story from “prison to promise.” The other 50-plus episodes to date feature formerly incarcerated guests from across the United States.
“There hasn’t been a shortage of people who want to tell their story,” Waleed said.
Some guests have come from Waleed’s own network and outreach. Others have emailed him, requesting to tell their own stories.
Guests share their journey from their worst days in prison to their established lives on the outside as substance abuse counselors, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates and more.
“What has happened with all of the episodes I’ve recorded is that they reconfirm for me the importance of having a healthy mindset and having a viable plan,” Waleed said. “Also, having a sense of belief or faith in oneself. It seems these things are common amongst all the stories that I collect — this self-awareness, belief in oneself, acknowledgement of one’s emotional self and regulating that self. Those things are just very key.”
Philip Cooper, who lives in Buncombe County, shared his experience in a January episode. He spent over three years in prison for drug trafficking and assault, and he remembers being anxious about his 2011 release.
“I heard all the negative things from people that had gotten out and came back,” Cooper said. “People — a lot of times — who either didn’t apply themselves or they didn’t have the resources to really have a successful reentry. I was scared. I wanted to do good, but I also knew that I didn’t have a lot of employment skills.”
Fortunately, he lived with his father post-release. Cooper said that was a level of support many people reentering society don’t have. He also committed to 12-step recovery and its frameworks of mentorship and accountability. He soon got his life back on track.
As he worked to find his way, a main source of optimism about his future came from a reentry program he enrolled in facilitated by a formerly incarcerated Black man. Hearing from someone with lived experience was powerful and gave Cooper hope about his own future, he said.
Today, Cooper has exceeded his expectations of what he thought was possible post-release. He remembers initially dreaming of being able to obtain a stable job at UPS, not knowing if that was even possible with his record. But now he feels his life has amounted to so much more as he’s a statewide advocate for reentry and second chance employment. He’s even running his own nonprofit, Operation Gateway, where he’s using his lived experience to help people released from prison in Buncombe County.
Waleed is using his podcast to amplify the voices of people with lived experience. He knows it’s their voices that have the most potential to resonate and guide formerly incarcerated people who are embarking on their own reentry journey.
“They will hear us share our lived experience, and that can give them hope,” Cooper said. “Also, for those other people that listen — who are allies, stakeholders, employers, HR professionals or decision-makers — people can hear these lived experiences, and it may touch their hearts.
“Hopefully, these lived experiences can change the mindsets, which goes to change policies to where we can have a greater impact on the population of returning citizens.”