John Reilly: Put yourself in the shoes of a freed criminal | Columnist

John Railey Guest Columnist

“You never really get to know a person unless you think about it from a person’s perspective…until you crawl into his skin and walk around in it.”

–Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Getting out of prison is hard and frustrating. Each complex twist is challenging and can lead to failure – a return to prison, which is costly in both financial and human terms.

“Many of these men and women lack role models and mentors,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Long of Winston-Salem. “They lack internet skills. Some can barely read, or have dyslexia. Some don’t have any food and are hungry. They need a little help.”

Long’s job as a prosecutor includes sending those convicted to prison. But he has long recognized that released criminals need a path back, and has been working to make that happen as the coordinator of his office’s Safe Community and Reentry Program. The work will continue in Winston-Salem on Tuesday, when Long’s office will work with the Reentry Program led by Rebecca Sauter and other community partners to conduct reentry simulations, To help those who work with or wish to work with released criminals better understand the Maze Freed Criminal Confrontation.

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This event is very much needed.

The Winston-Salem State University Center for Economic Mobility Studies (CSEM) welcomed the event. Re-entry work is the cornerstone of CSEM and realizes the heavy financial and human cost of recidivism. Douglas Bates, a CSEM Fellow and Assistant Professor in the WSSU Department of Social Work, is conducting a survey to help employers and released offenders better adapt to the workplace. CSEM’s partner organisations include Do School, whose participants can include released criminals studying the construction trade, and Project MOORE, which helps at-risk youth, run by David Moore, who spent decades in prison, Then he turned his life around.

CSEM’s deputy director, Alvin Atkinson, worked with Lang on reentry while Atkinson was working at WSSU’s Center for Community Safety in the early 2000s.

The mock event is part of a national program and is the latest of several events taking place in our state and territory. At events here, participants take on the roles of released convicts who will tackle challenges in healthcare, mental health, substance abuse, child support and employment. “We created different scenarios,” Long said. “It’s modeled on the real-life experiences and obstacles of these people. We show chaos.”

Transportation is another big challenge. “Time and time again, traffic is one of the biggest obstacles,” Long said. For example, he said, a released criminal without a driver’s license might rely on colleagues to get the job done. But colleagues lost their jobs, and the freed criminals relied on taxis to get to work. “So he paid $18 to get a job that paid $8 an hour,” Long said.

CSEM’s research documents similar challenges in the general population, including riders who take city buses to work spend an average of 12 hours a week on the bus, which helps lead the Winston-Salem Foundation and Forsyth Technologies community colleges to solve this problem. Reforms to the public transport system in particular could help released criminals. Elsewhere in the state, Long said, a factory realized there was a problem with public transportation and started providing shuttle services to released criminals, and a city adjusted bus routes to help them get to work. In Forsyth County, Long encouraged released offenders to use the driver’s license recovery program offered by the District Attorney’s Office.

Freed criminals tend to be good workers, Long said. “Their motivation is not wanting to go back.”

Project reentry is working. According to Project Reentry, the statewide recidivism rate is 32 percent, but for released offenders participating in its program, the rate is 10.7 percent

Reentry simulation events can help. “People going through the system talk about who helped them and how,” he said, and participants learn how to better help released offenders, including better coordination between everyone from probation officers to food bank operators.

“We can do better,” Long said. “Many released offenders really want to change if we can help a little.”


John Railey ( is a writer-in-residence at the Center for Economic Mobility Studies,

The Wall Street Journal welcomes guest columns. The length should not exceed 700 words. Writers should have some authority over their subject.


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