NC podcaster highlights prison-to-community success stories

NC podcaster highlights prison-to-community success stories

By Rachel Crumpler

At age 19, Craig Waleed had just entered a New York state prison. He was angry and afraid.

As Waleed explains, he’d fallen in love with the streets and their offerings — enamored with the gangs, bars and drugs. Observing the behavior in his neighborhoods, he thought it was the way Black men needed to conduct themselves, so that’s what he emulated.

In high school, Waleed quit sports and turned to drugs and alcohol of all kinds. He started to commit crimes to get money to pay for his substance use. Eventually, an assault landed him in prison for eight years.

Early into his sentence, he knew he didn’t ever want to return to prison — the strip searches, the confines of a cell, the dehumanization. 

Waleed realized he needed to chart a new path. 

He turned to education, reading all sorts of books and taking college courses. He looked within, working through the trauma of his childhood sexual abuse. He found a group of individuals behind bars that wanted to use their time productively as well. 

Still, his release was daunting. He wasn’t blind to recidivism trends and knew stigma came with his record. 

But Waleed made it. 

Now 52, he’s a married father of two boys living in Raleigh. He has earned four degrees, including a doctorate. He’s written three books. He is project manager for Unlock the Box, a campaign against solitary confinement, at Disability Rights NC

He’s on a mission to show others that successful reentry to society is possible. That’s the goal of his weekly podcast, Prison to Promise

In each episode, Waleed chats with a formerly incarcerated person who shares their story and strategies they used to avoid returning to prison, as well as what they are doing now to create purpose-driven lives. 

“My efforts are to save souls, to save lives, to help people tap into their own richness — their own potential,” Waleed said. “I want folks to realize that they can be successful post-incarceration, and they don’t have to continue to live up to the expectations of what this society expects of people who’ve been to prison. 

“I would like to call this the antithesis of expectations of people who’ve been incarcerated.”

Recidivism prevalent

Reentering society after incarceration isn’t easy. It’s all too common for people to reoffend and land back in prison. 

That’s because barriers to reentry can be too challenging to surmount. Once released, it is more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals, compared with the general population, to find jobs, secure stable housing and function in society.

There’s a stigma that follows people with criminal records, Waleed said: “It’s a lifetime sentence, no matter how much time you’ve done.” 

The latest U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, released in 2021, analyzed the recidivism rate of a sample of prisoners released from 24 states in 2008 over a 10-year period. The data revealed that about 66 percent of prisoners were re-arrested within three years, and 82 percent were re-arrested within 10 years. 

About half of the people in the sample returned to prison within three years, either for violating the conditions of their release or with a new sentence. Within 10 years, 61 percent returned to prison.

Recidivism is also a problem in North Carolina. More than 22,000 individuals are released from the state’s prisons every year.

An April 2022 report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission followed a sample of 16,340 people released from prison in 2019. The report found a 49 percent re-arrest rate for those people within two years. That same sample had a 20 percent recidivist conviction rate. Between those new convictions and people sent back to prison for parole violations, the group studied had a total 36 percent re-incarceration rate within two years of release.

The data shows that certain groups have higher recidivist arrest rates. In particular, high school dropouts, youth offenders and prisoners with substance use problems are more likely to return to prison. Additionally, individuals released from close custody — the highest security level — and individuals who spent time in restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement, had higher recidivism rates compared with the overall group.

Higher recidivist arrest rates were found for certain groups of prisoners. Personal characteristics and custody classification affect release outcomes. Credit: NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission

In contrast, the report found that incarcerated people with correctional jobs or those who participated in prison programming had lower recidivism rates.

Lower recidivist arrest and incarceration rates found for inmates with correctional jobs. Credit: NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission

Recidivist arrests largely occur within the first year, with the average time to re-arrest being eight months, according to the report.

“Recidivist activity, in terms of volume, declines over the two-year period,” said Michelle Hall, executive director of the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. She presented the recidivism data to state lawmakers on Feb. 9. “Most happens early, and then we see that decline over time, which points to the fact that effective interventions, sanctions programs and services should really occur as soon as possible in order to prevent reoffending.”

Amplifying lived experience

Even while incarcerated, Waleed said his goal was to help empower other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with tools for a successful reentry. 

He’s stayed committed to that purpose all these years, launching his podcast last March. A new episode is released every Thursday.

Waleed built a successful life after prison, and he wants others to know they can too. That’s easier when there are examples to emulate, he said.

In the first episode, Waleed shared his own story from “prison to promise.” The other 50-plus episodes to date feature formerly incarcerated guests from across the United States. 

“There hasn’t been a shortage of people who want to tell their story,” Waleed said.

Some guests have come from Waleed’s own network and outreach. Others have emailed him, requesting to tell their own stories.

Guests share their journey from their worst days in prison to their established lives on the outside as substance abuse counselors, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates and more. 

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