Prisoners among us?

November 1, 2009 9:00:00 PM PST
The brouhaha over the pending release of 27 North Carolina inmates with violent pasts is also shining a light on the state's prison work release program.Of the 27, four are already getting a taste of freedom.

State officials began scrambling to try and block the release after a controversial NC Supreme Court ruling that limited the length of so-called life sentences handed down in the 1970s to a term of 80 years.

That meant 26 men and one woman - all convicted of crimes like rape and murder - applied to be set free. They argue that with time off for good behavior - and other reductions - they had served their debts to society.

Click here for more information on each inmate (.pdf)

The pending releases prompted a public outcry, and Governor Beverly Perdue is blocking the release while challenging the way the good behavior credits were tabulated. The American Civil Liberties Union says the governor can't ignore the law and urged the inmates be set free.

But what many don't know is that four of the prisoners are already getting out of jail on a part time basis.

At Sherrill's Cosmetology School in Raleigh, Faye Brown - who was convicted in the murder of a North Carolina state trooper - is part of a work-release program. Her boss says it's been positive.

"I've seen it - the benefits of it - the rehabilitation part," offered Brown's employer Wanda Short.

Short says work release offers a bridge between incarceration and freedom, and helps inmates adjust to life back in the outside world. The irony is that Brown has been in the work release program for years. It wasn't until the public learned about it that there was outrage.

"You have a few people that have voiced their concerns, and maybe in not such a positive way," said Short.

But what the public might not realize is the Brown is not an isolated case. There are more than 700 work release inmates statewide and some are convicted killers and sex offenders.

Convicted rapist Steven Wilson went to prison in 1978 for abducting and raping a 9-year-old girl. In 1990, he was on work release at a fast food restaurant in Nash County when he was accused of sexually assaulting a child in a bathroom. Charges were never filed because the 7-year-old girl's family didn't want to.

Since that case, not much has changed when it comes to work release rules. The employer - not the Department of Corrections - is responsible for keeping the inmate in line.

That might explain why it was so easy for Roderick Baldwin, a habitual felon, to steal $400 dollars and a delivery van from his work release job and go on the run for days. Baldwin worked at a popular Chapel Hill bagel shop that's just down the road from two schools.

"You need to structure work release so that people, the community, is not threatened by it. So, they really need to be supervised while they're on work release," offered North Carolina Rep. Paul Stam, (R) Wake.

So who's out on work-release now? After an I-Team records request, the Department of Corrections released a list that includes 207 habitual felons, 21 first-degree murderers, 91 second-degree murderers, and 12 rapists. All are working in and around the public and they don't have to publicize it.

Department of Corrections officials say the work release program is an important and successful tool to help transition prisoners back to a successful life in the outside world.

"Most of the vast majority of the inmates that are on work release don't cause any trouble," offered spokesman Keith Acree.

But some do. Nearly 200 inmates were kicked out of work release for disciplinary problems in the past year.

Still, employer Wanda Short insists she's never had any trouble with inmates - including Faye Brown - and she's ready to answer anyone who says the work release program should end.

"I say yes just as equally as they don't believe," she offered. "I believe. We have to not be closed minded."

North Carolina was the first state in the nation to offer work release back in 1957. It was originally done to set up inmates in minimum security jails for success once they got out - and also to help pay the costs of their incarceration.

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