“Where do you want to be — a prison, a coffin, or in the community?” That is the question posed to 18 convicted felons last week in the Rockingham County Agricultural Center. The 18 offenders were hand-picked for a special program, based on their arrest records (not conviction records). All are at high risk to run afoul of the law while they are on parole, probation, or work release. That’s why they have been enrolled in Project Safe. Its goal is to improve the quality of life for all residents by employing a comprehensive countywide strategy to reduce gang-related violent crime and illegal gun possession – and it has proven its worth.
This is not the first time that Rockingham County has tried this. There are 11 similar programs in North Carolina’s federal middle district. Rockingham County has had 216 criminals go through the program and only three have afterwards been charged with gun offenses. That is close to a 98 percent compliance rate. Participation in Project Safe is required of these handpicked 18 convicted felons and it would have been a violation of their probation/parole had they not shown up. When they walked into the room their moods, body language, and personas differed. Some looked like they wanted to run for their moms, some thought they were walking down the catwalk, and others were very aware of their surroundings. The look on most of their faces said they weren’t sure of what was to come.
The first thing the 18 were able to hear was a compelling and influential story from a former gang member, originally from New York City. His story began with being in prison for five counts of armed robbery, and he needed a purpose in life. One question the ex-felon posed to the 18 was: Did they have a plan? Only four said they did. The other 14 tried not to make eye contact once they realized they couldn’t answer “yes” to the question. The speaker assured them the key to becoming a successful member of society was to have a plan. He told them that they would also struggle with carrying out that plan, but that Project Safe was there to help and provide resources to make them successful members of society.
During the whole presentation, the body languages of the 18 varied. Some looked like they were going to cry, some were confused as to what was going on, several seemed intrigued, one almost fell asleep, and one even looked like he was pouting about having to be present. Then the story was shared of an ex-felon who not only earned a master’s degree but is working towards a Ph.D. The prisoners had the opportunity to see that they could become a success story instead of another statistic.
Once the ex-felon was finished speaking, about 20 law enforcement people came into the room and sat on three sides around the 18. The panel included parole officers, police officers, state troopers, a federal public defender, a district attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney, and NC State Bureau of Investigation, ATF, FBI and DEA agents. Each member of the panel echoed a continuous reminder that the 18 are on their radar —and the radar of all facets of law enforcement.
In the last part of the meeting, the 18 had to take the initiative by connecting to the community resource partners who were present. The community partners included different organizations that could help them with job skills, job placement, school, mental health issues and a variety of other resources. I was happy to see that as soon as the 18 got a chance to speak to the community partners they were eager to see what type of help they could receive. The conversations with the partners were started by the 18 as they seemed to be happy someone would help them.
Which brings us back to, “Where do you want to be?” Let’s hope that the 18 take that question to heart, and that Project Safe will continue to be successful in giving convicted felons an ultimatum that they take seriously.