Alberta White was exactly one year out from her release date when prison officials told her she had 45 minutes to collect everything she owned and get on a bus.
It was Black Friday 2019, and she wasn’t even told where she was going—just that she was being moved out of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, where she’d spent the last three years.
Three hours later, the prison transport bus arrived in northeast Charlotte at the Center for Community Transitions, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing.
In 2011, White had been sentenced to up to 10 years and 11 months for a string of drug and financial crimes. She’d spent time in correctional facilities around the state—Black Mountain, Troy, and Raleigh. Charlotte was where she’d been born and raised.
“I was so glad to be getting out of Raleigh and especially to be coming home to Charlotte,” she said.
If things went the way she prayed, her confinement would end in a year and her probation a year after that.
But the justice system considered White, 68, “a habitual felon”—someone who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to three felony offenses in any state or federal court. Given her age and criminal record, another arrest would likely put her behind bars for the rest of her life. Getting through this year at the Center for Community Transitions and reintegrating into the world outside was, in all probability, her last chance at freedom.
White has been part of the fastest growing population in U.S. prisons: women. The Prison Policy Initiative has tracked prison populations since 1978; the most recent report, from 2018, found that while reforms in mass incarceration policies have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, that decrease has been almost exclusively among men.
The number of incarcerated women increased more than 475 percent between 1980 and 2020, according to recent data from the Sentencing Project, a decarceration research and advocacy center. Public policies that treat addiction as a crime are a big reason; 26 percent of women in prison are there for drug offenses, and 23 percent for property crime. Sixty percent of men, by comparison, are there for violent crimes.
In North Carolina, the number of women in the state’s prisons grew 19 percent between 2009 and 2018, while the number of men increased 1 percent.
About 20,000 people were released from North Carolina prisons in 2020; 3,033 of them were women, according to the annual Department of Public Safety report. But women leaving prison have few available reentry programs specific to needs like trauma-informed care, family housing, and suitable jobs.
Charlotte’s Center for Community Transitions, where White was sent, opened its Center for Women in 1987, when there were roughly 800 women incarcerated in North Carolina. Three decades later, that number has grown to nearly 5,000, but it remains the only transitional residential facility in the state for women. It can house just 30 women at a time.
White had worked 40 hours a week in the prison dental lab in Raleigh, where she earned $1 a day. She later got a work release job at Burger King.
But it was community volunteers who prepared her most for life after prison, taking her and other inmates shopping, out to eat, or to church. “That was a good thing because it was a shock being around normal people after all those years in a cage,” said White. “I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been thrown out into the world again without it.”
In Charlotte, White got a job at a Harris Teeter deli, earning $11.50 an hour. Every day, she would catch the #29 bus at Tryon Street near the Charlotte Transportation Center and transfer to the #15 at Billingsley Road and Randolph.
If she timed it right, she could arrive at the Harris Teeter in the Cotswold shopping center in 45 to 55 minutes. Timing it right was key: She had two hours to make it back to the center after her shift.
Of her roughly $360 weekly take-home pay, the state took $100 to pay for housing at the center. She kept $40 for personal expenses, and put the rest into a prison account that would be available when she completed her sentence. “I knew if I could save my money, I would have a better chance to get myself together after my release,” said White.
She shared a room with one other person, and the women all shared a communal bathroom and kitchen. Once a month, she was allowed to spend the night with her sister, Cheryl, in west Charlotte. Her life was as close to normal as it had been in almost 50 years.
Then the pandemic hit. The state Department of Public Safety suspended work-release programs and visitations. As the COVID-19 numbers began to spike for people living in close quarters, White worried; her diabetes made her more vulnerable to severe illness.
The North Carolina chapters of the ACLU, Disability Rights, and NAACP filed a lawsuit against DPS to release White and four other North Carolina inmates, arguing they “will be at the mercy of a prison system that is ill-equipped to handle a novel, deadly virus that has overwhelmed healthcare systems across the country.”
On April 9, 2020, White was released into her sister’s custody for the remainder of her sentence.
If she violated the terms of her release, she would be sent back to jail.
Straddling the Line
Decades ago, it was hard to imagine White as N.C. offender number 0779656. She’d graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in political science and spent a year at North Carolina Central law school.
But even then, White was straddling the line between legal and illegal. “I paid my way through college selling weed,” she said.
She started out as a casual user and slowly progressed to harder drugs. For years, she maintained a veneer of normalcy, holding down regular jobs. Things fell apart on April 3, 2001 when she was arrested on drug charges. Over the next few years, she was charged with a series of crimes, most of which were misdemeanors like forgery, larceny, and assaulting a public official. Each incident resulted in probation.
Within a few years, she started racking up felony charges: distributing controlled substances, obtaining property by false premises, identity theft. White’s sentences stretched from three to 18 months. In August 2011, she was sentenced for a consolidated group of offenses and classified as a habitual felon.
“I was in a terrible crack cocaine addiction for many years,” said White. “It all boiled down to untreated drug addiction. Otherwise, I never would have committed those crimes.”
By the time she arrived at the center, she had been clean and sober for nine years. “I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said. “At that point in my life, I knew I couldn’t use again.”
But as White found, mental and physical health care in prison are limited. At no time during her confinement did White receive treatment.
Kristie Puckett-Williams, an adviser on incarceration with the North Carolina ACLU, said the problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough programs; it’s that the programs offered aren’t sufficient and are overly focused on prison jobs with little rehabilitation.
“The prison system will tell you ‘reentry’ begins the day you enter prison, but the case managers are overworked and they don’t have enough resources,” said Puckett-Williams. “The difference between recidivism and not recidivism is resources and access to opportunity.”
White knows that she needs professional mental health counseling, but hasn’t sought it. She really doesn’t know where to start. Living alone, with the ability to come and go as she pleases, has been both exhilarating and overwhelming. It can be hard to sit still.
“I always have to be doing something,” she said. At the same time, “I don’t really like being around a lot of people because when I was inside I never had that solitude.”
A Place of Her Own
Former inmates are almost 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and are more likely to be estranged from family, banned from public housing because of their convictions, or limited geographically because of the terms of their parole or probation.
Many landlords won’t even consider renting to former offenders, and the state’s affordable housing crisis is only making the problem worse. This is particularly challenging for women who have custody of their children.
Private nonprofits have tried to address this gaping need. In 1999, Ruth Snyder began visiting several women housed at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center. The connection led her to create Changed Choices, a Christian nonprofit that provides counseling and support to incarcerated women. But that work quickly showed her that housing was often the biggest obstacle to success after those women leave prison.
“I went to many of the apartment complexes trying to find a place for some of these women that we had worked with for several years,” said Snyder. “My credit score was great and I was willing to put the places in my name, but nobody would rent to me.
“After three days of tramping around the city, looking online, and trying to figure out what we were going to do, I was absolutely depressed and demoralized. I sat down in tears and thought, ‘If this is the way I feel, how must these women feel who are coming out?’”
Changed Choices took up the work of helping the women find housing in various apartments around the city. In 2012, it opened the Ruth Snyder Home, which provides housing for up to six women at a time, who stay for an average of a year.
The house has a shared kitchen, two double and two single rooms, and two bathrooms, as well as computer room, library, and backyard. Residents work with a mentor, receive counseling, and become involved with a local house of worship. The objective is to help them reestablish themselves in the community and move on to independence.
The Reentry Housing Alliance is among the groups working to find more permanent solutions for housing insecurity after prison. The alliance has held informational seminars to persuade landlords and property managers to consider renting to ex-offenders, and advocates for changing the law to prohibit landlords from automatically rejecting an applicant who has a criminal record.
A lack of stable housing also makes it hard to get a job; most job applications require an address, and one is almost always necessary to receive a paycheck.
“Employment and housing are two sides of the same coin,” said Alliance founder Kenn Shrader. “You need a stable place to live and an address to secure a job. Likewise, you need a job to be able to pay the rent or the mortgage.”
This is one area where White had some advantage over many other women. She has no children, and was lucky enough to have family support and a place to go after she was released.
When White moved out of her sister’s house in November 2020, she moved into the family home she’d inherited from her father. Her brother had kept up the tax payments while she was incarcerated, but after being empty for a decade, the house was in need of repair.
White used money she’d saved from her prison and work-release jobs to redo the floors, put up new drywall, and fix the plumbing. But there’s still much more to do, including a new roof.
White went back to her job at Harris Teeter after she left the center, but took a leave of absence in December 2020 when the coronavirus numbers started to increase again
“Working in that grocery store at my age and in my health conditions with diabetes, I didn’t want to put myself out there like that,” she said. “I’d been fortunate and blessed to not contract it.”
But parole or probation restrictions can also inhibit an ex-offender’s job prospects, something White experienced. In early spring 2021, she was given an opportunity to work as a reentry specialist for a statewide grassroots criminal justice reform organization, a job that would earn nearly twice what she had been making at Harris Teeter. Her parole officer approved the required week’s paid training in Durham but the officer’s supervisor refused to allow her to leave Mecklenburg County.
White got by on savings, Social Security, and doing part-time COVID-19 testing for a nonprofit. In September 2021, she landed a job as a peer support specialist at a halfway house run by Promise Resources Network, a mental health resources agency in Charlotte.
Ex-offenders who can’t secure employment are likely to reoffend and be reincarcerated. Up to 75 percent of people who were incarcerated remain unemployed one year after release, according to the Center for American Progress.
The barriers to finding work are even higher for Black women, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. Nationally, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated Black women is nearly 44 percent, compared to 23 percent of formerly incarcerated white women.
In 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order prohibiting questions about criminal history during the initial job application process for state jobs. A similar provision already exists for federal agencies and contractors, though private employers are still allowed to ask.
I met White on an early Monday morning in May just after she’d finished an overnight shift at the halfway house. She was dressed in a black sweatshirt with the words, “Keep Your Bans Off My Body.” She was eagerly awaiting early voting for the May primaries, a right she and other felony offenders in North Carolina recently regained.
Her petite frame, easy smile, and lineless face disguise the hardscrabble life of someone who has been through severe addiction and years behind bars.
The transition to life after prison has been difficult, but she believes this time is for real—she’s not going back. She credits her conversion to Islam while incarcerated for her ongoing sobriety.
“Those things don’t even interest me anymore, because my primary goal is to never give them any kind of reason to trap me off like that again,” she said. “I’m focused now. I know what I got to do.”
The new job has also helped her confront her own past and suffering.
“Before I started working here, I didn’t realize I had so much trauma, because I didn’t know what trauma was,” she said. “Now, I know why a lot of things happened and understand why I do a lot of things.”
Melba Newsome is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. Her writing has appeared in Scientific American, Chemical & Engineering News, NC Health News, Politico and Newsweek, among others. She recently launched The Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate, a newsletter on environmental justice in Eastern North Carolina.
The International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists supported this reporting.