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As I prepare for my interviews with project managers, mental health liaisons, and case managers of North Carolina’s Local Reentry Councils, I always include this standard question: In what area is your agency facing the biggest challenge in providing reentry services? My main goal is to uncover new and effective initiatives for Durham’s CJRC, so this question isn’t particularly useful, but I find it interesting.

With the exception of a couple counties, most reentry staff respond with a disheartened sigh, followed by the word “housing.” While some local reentry councils benefit from county-sponsored transitional housing for their clients, many are left without funding to provide shelter for justice-involved individuals. And even if  funding is available, housing units aren’t often available in the county.

This ubiquitous issue of affordable housing is then compounded by the stigma against formerly incarcerated individuals, especially registered sex offenders. When I first began hearing reports of this problem across counties, I was shocked at the ease with which my interviewees spoke about this touchy subject. Sex offenders are commonly seen as the lowest of the low, even among those convicted of other violent crimes. I have rarely, if ever, heard mercy in anyone’s voice, including my own, when they speak about sex offenders.

Before talking to the reentry staff, I hadn’t met many people with so much empathy, compassion, and humanity. They are true in their mission to help justice-involved individuals get back on their feet, regardless of their conviction. Greg Singleton, the Executive Director of the Craven-Pamlico Local Reentry Council epitomizes this tireless dedication. During our conversation about the difficulties of finding housing for sex offenders, he said “I know it’s a sore conversation to have, but that doesn’t mean you walk away from it, because they’re getting out of prison too.” 

We could all learn something from him and many other reentry experts, especially in conversations about prison abolition. I am a long-time supporter of prison abolition, but I struggle with the small part of my brain that wants to send sex offenders “away” forever. In conversations about prison abolition, my friends and I often get stuck on the issue of “where to put” rapists and child molesters. As a sexual assault survivor, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of education for me to genuinely share in Greg Singleton’s mindset about sex offenders. But if I’m going to be a true prison abolitionist and advocate for abolition in my career, I must put in this work.

If I truly believe in the cruelty and evil of the prison system, I must be opposed to subjecting anybody to its inhumanity, regardless of “crime” or “guilt.”