03/30/11 — Program helps felons find jobs, start over

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Program helps felons find jobs, start over

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 30, 2011 1:46 PM

When Carolyn Thomas looks at the former convicts who come to her for help finding a job, she sees her son, a felon who was unable to find work to keep him from turning back to a life of crime.

That help wasn't there for Mrs. Thomas' son, prompting her and husband, Bernard, to form Building Lives of Inmates in North Carolina (BLINC) outreach, a non-profit organization designed to help former prison inmates find employment.

Lashonda, 30, is one of the 12 people BLINC has helped find employment so far. She asked that her last name not be used.

"I know it saved me," Lashonda said. "I felt like my back was against the wall. I have kids coming up to me, 'I want this and I want that' and I was used to providing for them before I left. Then for them to come up to me ... I would be like, 'I just don't have it. I can't do it.' That really hurt me. I had looked for jobs, but I was turned down every time -- 'We don't hire felons.'

"I just felt so hurt and that nobody was giving me a second chance. I just felt like there was nothing that I could do. Honestly, I was thinking about going back to an old lifestyle. Even though I worked in the past, I was in the streets also. I was thinking that maybe this was my only option since I couldn't get a legal job. Thankfully, I got that call just in time."

The call for the job not only kept her from returning to the streets, it helped keep her with her four daughters, she said.

"(The children) tell me every day that they are proud of me," she said. "It was wonderful. If it wasn't for them (BLINC), I would probably still be on the streets putting myself in a position to either be locked back up or dead or anything.

"I really thank them. They just don't know how much I really appreciate them and what they do for people."

Lashonda served four years in prison after she was convicted of driving the getaway car for an ex-boyfriend who robbed a bank.

She was released in August and moved back to Goldsboro. She is on probation for three years and one of the conditions is that she be employed.

"The first couple of months (back) I just spent with my kids then I heard about this program through my probation officer," Lashonda said. "I came in for an interview and everything sounded nice and then within three to four weeks I had a job. I work on a production line so I do all kinds of different things.

"It feels wonderful," she added. "I feel like I have some worth. I think it is a wonderful program that it gives us a second chance who want a second chance. Mrs. Carolyn is the sweetest person that I have met in a long time to even be doing this for us, giving us the opportunity to get back on our feet and make something of ourselves."

Mrs. Thomas said BLINC works to make sure the people it helps don't fall through the cracks and wind up back in jail.

"When I try to find a job, I try to find something where they can survive so they won't have to have a hustle on the side," she said. "That is important with the benefits. We stay in contact with the employers. We do 30-, 60-, 90-day assessments with them and then six months and a year."

Lashonda said the program "opens the door, opens a whole new world for some of us who have never even had real jobs. Some of us, the streets are all that we know, so when somebody opens a door for you, of course you are going to want to peek in, but once you walk through that door you see there is a whole other side to not being in trouble, to not being in the streets. It is a wonderful thing. I think anybody that wants to do better would take that opportunity to better themselves."

"The fact that they come in tells me they are crying for help," Mrs. Thomas said. "It has to be something they want to do. I know that we can't save them all, but if we can save just one. How I came about the program, my son spent 17 years of life in and out of prison. He got out couldn't find a job and went back. It was just a revolving door for 17 years of his life."

While her son was in prison, Mrs. Thomas researched how to help felons become productive citizens. She found out about a federal bonding program through the government, tax incentives and many employers, especially if you have the federal bonding program, will give them a second chance.

"I came about the program because my son was really crying out for help but nobody would hear him," Mrs. Thomas said.

The program is not offered to sex offenders and people with a history of violence. Those who want to become part of the program have to prove they are free of illegal drugs. They are tested for drugs periodically.

Mrs. Thomas noted that seven out of 10 inmates end up back in jail. She said programs like BLINC aim to reduce that percentage.

The program focuses on people who have just been released from prison, she said. But the Thomases also talk with inmates prior to their release in order to prepare them for the program and they work with the Transition Aftercare Network, a division of the state Department of Correction.

Also, people in the program can take Career Readiness Certification classes through Wayne Community College.

"We are still going into the prisons," Mrs. Thomas said. "We have tweaked it a little bit. We are doing mentoring, post- and pre-release up to six months before they are released. Also, we do telephone interviews with them as well. They write us and we write them back, so we sort of build a relationship with them six months to a year before they are released."

For more information, call 221-3467 or 273-3400 or send e-mail to poetrycaramel@bellsouth.net.