By Jade Wilson
Two formerly incarcerated men took it upon themselves to develop a curriculum that addresses recidivism and restructures the tools used to survive in prison.
Since 2019, Success While In Transition (SWIT) has taught a three-week program for formerly incarcerated people that meets once a week in the evenings. SWIT last met at Reentry House Plus, a transitional house in Hillsborough.
The justice system in the United States gets people off the streets by locking them up but fails to address the issue of reoffending. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of previously incarcerated people return to prison before their first year out.
Two formerly incarcerated men, Tommy Green and William Elmore, created SWIT to address the barriers people in prison face re-entering society. The program equips them with the tools people exiting the carceral system need to build a successful, meaningful life.
“The basis of SWIT,” said Green, “is to pretty much take everything that got you through prison — everything that got you through the most traumatic point of your life, everything you use to cope, get by, get through it — transferred into […] coping and getting by out here.”
At the beginning of each workshop, participants check-in about how their week is going. The meetings are held in private, so, for the purpose of this story, we’ll use only their first names. Ethan, formerly incarcerated and currently living in transitional housing, is doing well physically, but is having a hard time finding employment.
“I’ve been doing good,” Ethan said. “I haven’t been doing no dope and I’ve been not drinking and […] doing classes, trying to get a job. But my background is not helping me get a job at all.”
Green encouraged Ethan to “keep trying.”
“Something will give,” said Ethan. “Somebody will give you a shot. It might not be the shot you want, but it’ll be the shot that pays if nothing else.”
Green spent twelve years in prison, and when he was released, he says he faced a lot of adversity before being employed as a community health worker through the North Carolina Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program.
“I’m a six-time felon,” said Green. “Six-time violent felon at that.” Before he worked for the health department, Green worked as a parking lot attendant. “Nobody would give me a chance. Somebody finally gave me a chance, and I didn’t want to mess it up.”
Green was hungry for an opportunity and did whatever it took for him to succeed. In one of the modules, Elmore, who spent 25 years in prison, talks about the difference between receiving help versus a handout.
“Help is like soul food handouts and like fast food,” said Elmore, “Fast food will get you around the corner. Maybe to the gas station. Maybe to the next exit. Help synonymous with soul food is really gonna nourish you and help you take care of yourself along the way.”
Green says not many reentry programs are run by formerly incarcerated people and that’s what sets them apart.
“You can’t teach what me and Will teach,” said Green, “without going through what me and Will have gone through.”
After 25 years in prison, Elmore, a public speaker and author, uses his lived experience to help others.
“If it weren’t for our reputation,” said Elmore, “we wouldn’t be in this house doing this work. I never had a job till I went to prison. However, my reputation since while in prison and post prison has put me in a position — I could go into a courtroom and talk to a judge on your behalf.”