“This agency was born out of my own experience,” says Frankie Roberts, who has served as the Executive Director of Leading Into New Communities, Inc. (LINC, Inc.) since he and co-founder Tracey Ray started it in 2000. LINC, Inc. provides transitional living and case management services to meet the needs of those who are returning from incarceration, and has successfully helped reintegrate over 1,200 men and women who have been released from prison since 2002; 92% of which have avoided reoffending thanks to LINC’s services.
Frankie was inspired to start the organization by his own experience with his brother. “I had an older brother who was drafted and deployed to Vietnam in ‘68. Once he got there, he found himself struggling with a heroin addiction.” Frankie shared that although his brother was eventually given an honorable discharge in 1971, his struggles with addiction caused turmoil in their relationship at home. “I became bitter and unforgiving because he took all the energy out of the household with his addiction,” Frankie recalls. “My brother was convicted of an armed robbery years later–I was about 12 then. Eventually I graduated from high school and went to barber school. He was out of prison by this time, but found himself back in the throes of addiction. He would come by the barbershop begging for money. I was still unforgiving.”
In 1997, Frankie had what he describes as his “Road to Damascus” moment. “One thing God showed me is that, were it not for his grace, my brother’s life could’ve been my own.” The next year, Frankie’s brother underwent a medical procedure; Frankie was determined to make things right once he had begun recovery. “God put it on my heart to make amends after all these years.” But right as Frankie was preparing to leave the barbershop that day to visit the hospital, he received an urgent call from his sister-in-law. His brother had already passed.
Two years later, Frankie and Tracey had started LINC, Inc.; an especially daunting task considering the lack of presence reentry work had in Wilmington at the time. “We were literally starting from scratch. We just started telling people we were available to provide support with a special focus on substance abuse. People started coming by and we would help them with resumes and things like that. It was a slow startup.” According to Frankie, things started to grow in 2002 when they started receiving funding from the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission, and again in 2007 thanks to the Second Chance Act, which authorized federal grants to organizations to provide housing, substance abuse treatment, employment training, and other services to aid in the reducing recidivism. Not only did this make LINC, Inc a more notable name; it also helped address some of their biggest challenges.
“The people we serve need employment skills, transportation… homelessness was a huge challenge. And people are obviously very discriminatory toward people with a criminal history; there’s always a Scarlet Letter behind your name,” Frankie noted, listing challenges that LINC, Inc. has had to navigate throughout the years.
“Recidivism was close to 70% when we started. One of the reasons this was so high was because of employer discrimination towards people with a history. We learned that you can cut recidivism in half just by having access to employment, so that’s what we focused on. We learned that if we can provide housing, and then wrap all the other services in ‘comprehensive case management’, then our success is more imminent. We opened a 10 bed campus over our office upstairs. Afterwards, our outcomes improved significantly. We’ve since been able to increase housing from 10 beds to 53 beds. That’s what changes things–the housing piece.”
“We’ve learned how to be strength-based and solution-focused. People returning from prison have always been criticized. When I think about who I was with my brother–treating him like the scum of the earth–that’s what these people are used to. So we learned to focus on each person’s strength and resilience. If someone’s 15 minutes late to an appointment, we focus on the fact that they made it. We know that because of various factors, the odds are often slim of people even showing up, so we’re just triumphant to have them with us. We’ve found that this creates a spark–an inspiration in people. You can see it. It’s not that you don’t deal with the tardiness; you just address it without tearing people down.”
Frankie points out that although there is more dialogue about the importance of reentry work these days, there are still challenges imposed by public and systemic biases. “Over 50% of the incarcerated are Black and brown people. Yet 60% of our residents are white. When people hear that they’re surprised, but when you look at the system, case managers who make the referrals for release are going to prioritize those who they think have the best shot. And of course, the white people get more of the privilege–the opportunity. What we’ve tried to do is make prisons and jails cognizant of this and provide training on reframing how you assess risk.”
In addition to citywide efforts, LINC, Inc. is engaged in statewide reentry work. One of the recent successes of the work of organizations like Frankie and Tracey’s? In 2020, Governor Roy Cooper implemented “Ban the Box” policies at state agencies to increase job opportunities for ex-offenders. “This means to remove the box for criminal history off the initial job application, which disproportionately affects people of color. We wanted to delay the question further in the process. Now we’re working on that same process with housing discrimination.”
Despite recent accomplishments, Frankie knows that there’s a lot more we could do. “We need to empower agencies like [StepUp’s] and ours. We need to ban the box when it comes to contracting work. We need to do more to incentivize businesses to hire people with records. And the government needs to hire more people with records themselves, and not just for entry positions.” But ultimately, Frankie believes that what this all boils down to is interrogating one’s own biases. “People have to seek from within. We want people–even our own staff–to recognize their biases.”
“I asked the mayor one time: ‘you know how we can switch this thing up and give people with criminal histories more access?’ He said ‘how’s that Frank?’ ‘You just practice forgiving and engage your own network–people like you–with influence. Then this thing will go away overnight.”