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When Latonya Daniels was released from prison in September, she knew she never wanted to go back. The 41-year-old was determined to turn her life around.
“It was a time for me to get my mind together on what I really wanted to do,” Daniels said about her time in prison. “And to think about the things I did to get myself in that predicament. It can happen to the best of us.”
Daniels, who served a six-month sentence for back-to-back DWIs, also had a goal for herself. For as long as she was incarcerated, that’s how much time she would give herself to find a job and a home.
Daniels was able to do just that with the help of the Nash Edgecombe Wilson Reentry Council, whose mission is to assist people returning to the community following a period of incarceration with resources they can use to transition back into society as productive citizens. The council, which is state-funded, seeks to help people like Daniels with transportation, housing, education, job referrals and other support by working with a variety of community stakeholders.
“I came home on a Friday and that Monday I went and got into the program,” Daniels said. “I had lost everything and needed to start all the way back over when I came home.”
SUSTAINING AND BEING SUCCESSFUL
Daniels is one of hundreds who have benefited from the NEW Reentry Council program since it began more than five years ago. There are several reentry councils across the state that work to not only support individuals like Daniels but aim to reduce the number of repeat offenders.
“When offenders come out, they want people to sustain and be successful,” said Anita Lynch, program coordinator for the NEW Reentry Council. “We have individuals just like Tonya coming out and wanting to do better. “We see the hunger in them. We do put a lot of energy in them. We try to assist them in every way that we can.”
Lynch said the council enrolls at least 60 people per month in the program or 20 people per each county from Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe.
MAKE YOU STRONGER OR WEAKER
Daniels had always been independent and had been on her own since age 20. She did serve a different six-month sentence more than 14 years ago for a marijuana charge. But she still worked through it and had a job and place to call home and even had two vehicles at one point.
“I had been doing good for 10 years straight,” Daniels said.
But when her mother died, she fell into a deep depression. The loss took a toll on her, she said.
“I went from casual drinking to heavy drinking,” Daniels said.
Things began to spiral out of control and that’s when she got two DWIs and eventually was sentenced in 2018.
“Luckily, I only had to do 120 days,” she said about her sentence. “They gave me a split sentence. I could have done a year to two years.”
Daniels said being in prison this last time was different. She and other inmates were confined 22 hours each day.
“That place was very mental,” she said. “It’s either going to make you stronger or you’re going to become weaker than you already are.”
She said after her release and enrollment in the NEW Reentry Council program, she also took several on-the-job training classes at the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Wilson. Her father, who is very supportive, told her about those classes, she said.
“I took some classes just to stay occupied because I was so confined when I was gone,” Daniels said. “I didn’t mind doing anything to just be out and opening my mind back up to some things.”
Daniels has worked hard the past several months and now works as a waitress at a local restaurant chain and is working on getting a second job with the reentry council’s help.
The program has helped her with transportation and uniforms she has needed for work. She recently just moved into a place of her own and she couldn’t be happier.
“I feel like I’m finally back on my feet,” Daniels said.
‘YOU’VE GOT TO MOVE FORWARD’
Felicia Thorne, NEW Reentry Council case manager for Wilson County, said the program is about making individuals self-sufficient.
“Sometimes we are their last resort or resource,” Thorne said. “We try to help them think positive. Most of the time, we are like a mentor to them. They are very open with us.”
Thorne said when staffers first interview people for the program, the applicants often feel down and out. But she gives them a bit of advice.
“Hold your head up,” Thorne tells them. “You are somebody. That’s in the past. We’re here now. You’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to change your mindset.”
Thorne, whose passion for helping her clients is evident, said it’s vital to encourage former inmates and give them support.
“You don’t look down on people’s faults, you look at their needs,” she said. “And at this moment, they need help.”
GOALS, NEXT STEPS
Daniels, who is still in the six-month program, said the reentry council’s support has been tremendous. She said she is more self-confident and even more determined to remain a successful client.
“I’m just trying to put myself in a position where I don’t have to want or need from other places,” she said. “It’s important to try and get into a program where you can get those provisions and services and then appreciate the people who are helping you with these things.”
While the program is a lifeline, she said, success ultimately boils down to one thing.
“It’s really up to the person when they come home, if they want to be in a positive environment and get their self back together,” Daniels said.
With the program’s help, Daniels has completed her DWI assessments. Her next goal is to pay off her $1,100 probation fines so she can get her license back.
Daniels said her time in prison was somewhat of a healing process for her as well, especially dealing with the grief of losing her mother.
“Everything was a growing experience ... the time away and losing my mom,” she said.
Daniels said she is grateful for a program like the NEW Reentry Council.
“I’m always thanking them all the time,” Daniels said. “In this era and time and the way statistics are ... I have been back twice,” she said, referring to prison. “I’m determined I’m not going back a third time.”
A HAND UP
Lynch said the NEW Reentry Council program is for anyone with some type of criminal background. Staffers will conduct an assessment from low to medium to high risk. Individuals are referred from various agencies including probation and parole. Others hear about the program through word of mouth. Reentry council workers also go into prisons as well.
Lynch said staff and advocates know the program works.
“We have the success stories to prove it,” she said. “We see what it does and how it helps. It’s not a handout, but a hand up.”
Officials said some people who have completed the program come back and volunteer to help others. Daniels said she hopes to do the same.
“They want to give back,” Thorne said.
For more information about the NEW Reentry Council, contact Anita Lynch, program coordinator, at 252-567-2819 or Felicia Thorne, Wilson County case manager, at 252-907-9266