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Life after lockdown: How formerly incarcerated people are helping each other heal

By StrengthenNC Team | November 29, 2022 | Community Health, Changemakers, Community Partners, Investments

Camera looks upward at four Wounded Healers team members posing in front of the Durham County Detention Center, a tall, modern stone building, with a U.S. flag and North Carolina flag behind them.
L to R: Dorel Clayton, Mentor & Board Member; Nichole Shackelford, Program Director; Tommy Green, Mentor & Board Member; Terence Johnson, Interim Executive Director

How to vote, use a computer, open a bank account, and use a credit card were just a few of the things that Edward “Scottso” Scott, age 55, did not know how to do until recently. When he walked out of Orange Correctional Center in 2019 after being incarcerated for 30 years, a changed world lay before him. Scottso found himself facing the same uphill battle that all formerly incarcerated people (FIP) experience upon reentry—how to start again.

Each year, 650,000 people in the U.S. are released from prison, but with their freedom come incredible physical, mental, and societal hurdles. Many FIPs are diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Others struggle with strained and broken relationships. The long-lasting effects of incarceration hover over day-to-day life, resulting in alarming statistics:

Equally alarming are the rates of recidivism, especially here in North Carolina, where 49% of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested within two years and 36% end up back in prison.

Fortunately for Scottso, he had a head start in tackling these challenges.

While incarcerated, Scottso met Tom McQuiston, a long-time volunteer in North Carolina’s prison system, who became his sponsor. They built a friendship that made Scottso feel seen, supported, and motivated to try to live a different kind of life.

“My reentry didn’t start when I got out—it started a long time ago when I began working on myself spiritually and mentally,” Scottso says. “I didn’t want to go out the same way that I came in.”

Scottso shared that mindset with his friend and fellow incarcerated individual, Will Elmore, who was later released in 2015. Together, the three men discussed the importance of a support system for the FIP population. They began to envision an organization that would focus on connecting those being released from prison with peer mentorship.

“To see other [incarcerated people] who didn’t have support is what made me want to become a healer,” Scottso says. “It’s important that we reach out to those in need.”

And so, Scottso, Elmore and McQuiston founded Wounded Healers to take aim at the drivers of recidivism.

Two men sit together on the front porch steps of a home, hands folded and looking at the camera
Edward “Scottso” Scott, Co-Founder and Tommy Green, Mentor & Board Member

“Our organization builds a collaboration that rethinks, ‘What does successful reentry in our community look like?’ ‘What systems and support are needed to lead towards long-term reductions in recidivism?” says Wounded Healers’ Interim Executive Director, Terence Johnson—a PhD student at UNC’s School of Social Work whose siblings are formerly incarcerated individuals.

The work of Wounded Healers is guided by the findings of Shadd Maruna, an author, professor and reentry program researcher who found that the formerly incarcerated population thrives by being embraced by the community and through helping others.

Based on those insights, the founders of Wounded Healers built a team of 18 mentors with the lived experience of incarceration. Together, they support others through their reentry and connect them with local programs and services that provide employment and education opportunities, housing assistance, interview and resume building workshops, and healthcare, in all its forms.

In addition to acquiring these services, mentees receive the invaluable gift of access to the mentors themselves. Mentors’ personal histories of incarceration allow them to connect with those facing reentry on a level that only they can.

“We’ve been there, done that, been on the yard,” says Dorel Clayton, a FIP and Wounded Healers board member and mentor. “Who better to mentor someone that’s coming home than somebody who actually walked that same walk?”

Since his own release, Clayton has committed himself to supporting FIPs across a spectrum of stressors. He now serves as a community health worker and peer support professional, connecting those in need to appropriate health services and other community re-entry resources.

Tommy Green followed a similar path. After a 12-year prison sentence at Orange Correctional Center, where he bonded with Scottso on the yard, he was also inspired to change his course in life. Like Clayton, he’s now a Wounded Healers mentor and a community health worker, connecting FIPs living with chronic conditions to affordable health care. Along the way, the two discovered similarities in their stories.

“We came from great lives, from a lot of missed opportunities,” Green says. “So, [after release] we worked hard, got good jobs, or made the best out of the jobs we had until we got good jobs.” Scottso did the same and is now the co-owner of a landscaping company, making a concerted effort to employ FIPs.

Employment is a vital component of reducing recidivism, but it’s a challenge shared by many FIPs. Nichole Shackelford, Wounded Healers program manager, says that though employment is essential, it shouldn’t stop there. “Education, wanting to better yourself, having determination, being encouraged. I think all those things are very crucial parts of a person successfully staying away from recidivism,” she says.

Shackelford, unlike Clayton and Green, did not have a positive upbringing, and that led to two separate stints in prison. At the beginning of her second sentence, she discovered that she was pregnant, but her incarceration prevented her from raising her son in his first year of life. He became her catalyst for change. When they were reunited a year later, she not only had her child, she had a calling. Shackelford is now a certified peer support specialist, a certified substance abuse counselor and a community activist.

“Anything that I can do to help someone address, overcome, or avoid that next barrier so they can make progress and be successful… I mean, that’s what I’m here to do,” Shackelford says. “Seeing someone go back [to prison] just because they couldn’t access the services and the help and the funding that they needed—that would be the worst-case scenario.”

In its nearly three years of existence, Wounded Healers has helped to avert that scenario, supporting more than 20 people as they transitioned back into the community. The organization also continues to assist the mentors themselves, who affirm that staying on the right path is essential for their mentees to do the same

The organization’s volunteers, staff and board have not only bolstered and built resilience on the individual level, they’ve also forged strong relationships with community organizations and found success in advancing the lives of the formerly incarcerated population by working together.

At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), we know that people who have been incarcerated are more likely than the general population to struggle with certain chronic conditions like asthma, high blood pressure and mental health disorders. Unfortunately, not all correctional facilities are equipped to address the health needs of inmates, and many incarcerated people don’t have access to appropriate treatment.

In addition to these physical and emotional health disparities, people coming out of prison systems may struggle to find healthy housing and steady employment. Organizations like Wounded Healers are stepping in to bridge those gaps and lay the groundwork for people to have healthier, brighter futures. That’s why, in 2022, Wounded Healers was selected as one of 10 organizations in Blue Cross NC’s inaugural Strengthen NC cohort—an intentional investment in building the capacity of organizations led by or serving historically underrepresented communities and people of color.

Understanding. Purpose. Empathy. Friendship. While incarcerated, many prisoners seek these things, but they need them even more once their sentence comes to an end.

On the day that Scottso walked out the prison gates, he did so with a mentality rarely found in those on the brink of reentry. He was hopeful. He wasn’t alone. He had a support system and resources awaiting him. And he had a familiar face. His mentor, Tommy Green, was there on the other side of the gates, waiting to pick him up.

 

See how Blue Cross NC is partnering with local organizations across North Carolina to help address the unique challenges in their communities.