By Craig Ramey
It’s a cool November evening at the very end of Alligator Road in Vanceboro. A family of deer quietly grazes on a patch of grass in an oddly picturesque setting of farmland, forests, artificial floodlights, chain-link fences and spiraled razor wire. The sun is slowly setting around the walls of Craven Correctional Institution (CCI), but on the inside, seven men are preparing for the start of a new day with help from Keys to Freedom, a class offered by Craven Community College (Craven CC).
Led by Greg Singleton, Craven CC director of community workforce readiness and project manager for the Craven Pamlico Re-Entry Council, the Keys to Freedom program prepares individuals for job interviews, budgeting, goal setting, time management, coping strategies for failure and other unique challenges an individual may face after serving time in prison.
“Nobody’s throwing underhanded pitches out there,” said Singleton to the class. “When we get the opportunity, we’ve got to knock the cover off the ball. This is a race and we don’t start at the same line because we’ve got a stripe on our back.”
Game metaphors are a common instructional approach for Singleton. Even the visitation room, which sometimes doubles as a classroom, has a checkerboard floor of white and peach tiles that suggest a careful and strategic game of chess between instructor and student.
“He is here to teach us the game,” said William Hugo, a Keys to Freedom student. “He’s teaching us to be ready for what’s out there waiting for us and how to deal with it. He’s handed me the tools and taught me how to sharpen my blade.”
Craven Correctional began hosting Keys to Freedom to help increase employability for inmates after their release and decrease the rate of recidivism, which currently costs Craven County over $1 million a year. Additionally, the current national recidivism rate is 76% within four years of release.
“I learned how to conduct myself,” said William Winston, another student in the class. “To make sure I got to interviews dressed properly, my speech is right and I’m on time; to use the tools, pay attention and listen.”
Understanding that each student will be faced with the challenge of finding employment that accepts workers with criminal backgrounds, the class utilizes mock job interviews to teach students how to promote their positive assets, maintain self-confidence, understand employer expectations and navigate uncomfortable interview questions.
“This all comes down to healthy relationships, no drugs and employment,” said Singleton. “You have to surround yourself with healthy relationships and you have to make money—legal money.”
The most recent 68-hour class began in August with 14 students but ended Nov. 13 with only seven students because CCI is primarily a processing center for inmates as they prepare for transfer to long-term facilities.
Despite the class finishing with half its starting roster, graduation night came with a glowing sign of optimism in the words of its keynote speaker, Gregory Dunk. A former inmate at CCI, Dunk was a graduate of the very first Keys to Freedom class in July 2015. Released in December 2017, Dunk utilized the skills learned in the class to get two different jobs and has enrolled at Lenoir Community College (LCC) in his hometown of Kinston, where he is working toward an associate in business administration.
“I feel honored to be here,” said Dunk. “I can remember being on the other side of that door and peeking in to see if someone was coming to visit me that day. I remember when I was riding down that same road in the back of a sheriff car coming here. To come from the back gate to this gate—I feel so honored to walk through the gate this way and back out and again. I will never forget this night in my life.”
Dunk looks around the visitation room in disbelief. At one point he sees an old friend and they have a brief homecoming of smiles and hugs before they have to part ways again. Eyes bloodshot and glistening, Dunk turns and crosses back to his corner of the checkered floor, his friend back through a locked door.
Singleton understands this uneasy homecoming as well. As an ex-offender who once wore the same uniform as his students, Singleton projects a new image of hope and optimism today. Sharply dressed in a jacket and bowtie on the outside, memories of his time spent in a federal penitentiary still lie just beneath the surface.
“After doing five years in a federal penitentiary, it’s not easy to walk back in,” he said. “It’s daunting. But at the same time it’s important. I don’t do it only for them but also for me—to stay rooted and grounded.”
Singleton continues the process twice a week to ensure his students have an opportunity for success after they are released. Each time he enters the prison, like every other visitor, he must remove his belt and shoes, turn his pockets inside out and walk through two metal detectors. He is then buzzed through a door by guards at each entrance before reaching his classroom.
“You know how many doors I walk in to get to y’all,” he asks the class. “Nine. It’s hard for me to come in here all the time. I’ve done my time. I’m proud of you guys and I’m going to miss you, but one thing I will not do; I will not invest more in you than you are willing to invest in yourself. You have to believe in yourself.”
Dunk was in the first Keys to Freedom class nearly three years ago, but Singleton’s message of self-reliance still resonates with him every day. After overcoming the challenge of getting a job outside of prison, Dunk faced another obstacle when his construction job was cut short because of Hurricane Florence. Rather than look to Singleton for help finding another job, Dunk set out to find another job on his own.
“I still see him (Singleton) as a mentor,” said Dunk. “I don’t call him for a job. I don’t need to. He taught me everything I need to know.”
While incarcerated at CCI, Dunk made $4.90 a week working in the kitchen. Today, at 33 years old, he works full time at Butterball in Mount Olive and is going to LCC to achieve his dream of owning a trucking business by age 40.
“I genuinely know how they feel,” said Dunk. “But to get out and stay out, that’s the hardest part. Some people look at you and they think violence. But there’s a lot of good people. It takes two seconds to make the wrong decision and cost you the rest of your life. When you have a chance to start all over again, you have to take it.”
As the final class draws to a close, CCI Director of Programs Byron Walston thanks the class and reinforces the keys to freedom one last time. The game has not yet started for today’s seven graduates, but for Singleton and Dunk, the game continues as they exit through the prison once again, passing by buzzing doors, security cameras, fences and corrections officers, taking one small step at a time until they are back outside and the last door locks behind them. The family of deer has disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind Singleton and Dunk, standing with their backs to the prison at the start of a new finish line—the place where Alligator Road begins.