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Community collaboration seeks to help ex-offenders reenter society

Within a 50-mile radius of Beaufort County, seven prisons in five counties have the capacity to hold more than 5,500 inmates. Scattered throughout counties between them, county detention centers hold countless others awaiting trial.

But what happens when criminal offenders have done their time and prepare to leave these facilities?

A new effort in Beaufort County is working to help answer that question by providing resources to help prevent former offenders from returning to jail. During a well-attended meeting at Harvest Church on Tuesday, representatives from local government agencies, nonprofits and churches moved forward with creating a local reentry council for Beaufort County.

“Our goal is to reacclimate ex-offenders or returning justice-involved citizens into society so that they can become productive citizens,” said Barbara Gaskins, a local reentry professional who has been spearheading the effort. “If we as a community step in and help these individuals, then they are more apt to be an asset to society rather than a liability. By helping them, it decreases recidivism.”

On release from prison, ex-offenders face a variety of challenges, starting with the most basic needs of food, housing and transportation. Once those needs are met, education and employment are the next goal. Gaskins hopes to see the Beaufort County Reentry Council connect ex-offenders with these resources locally.

“When the community hears ‘ex-offender,’ a lot of the community is looking down on these individuals instead of helping them,” Gaskins said. “A lot of these individuals are looking for a hand up, not a hand out. They’re just looking for that second chance, so that’s a stigma we’re trying to reduce as well.”

Leading the meeting with Gaskins, Pastor Rodney Cole Sr., of Interfaith Clergy Standing for Our Community, and Victor Hinnant, of the N.C. Department of Commerce, represented the faith community and state government.

Also attending were representatives from Beaufort County Department of Social Services, the Beaufort County Health Department, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington Police Department and Congressman Greg Murphy’s office.

It’s an effort that has the full backing of state government. In 2017, the N.C. General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper formed the State Reentry Council Collaborative. The multi-agency council includes representatives from the N.C. Department of Justice, the N.C. Court system, the Department of Health and Human Services, the N.C. Department of Commerce, the N.C. Community College System and the N.C. Department of Transportation, as well as nonprofits, employers and faith-based organizations.

While that group oversees state-wide reentry efforts, local reentry councils have also been established in 20 counties throughout the state, including Pitt, Craven and Pamlico counties. Fifteen of those councils receive state funding, a goal Gaskins wants to see the Beaufort County council work toward.

As to the next steps, the group is creating committees to help address food, transportation, housing, education and job placement. Anyone interested in learning more about the effort can contact Gaskins at 252-495-3173 or email washington2ndchances@gmail.com.