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Charlotte community forum highlights prison education, work programs

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CHARLOTTE -- The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's office held its annual community forum on Friday.

The program provides resources to help former inmates successfully re-enter society and stay out of jail.

This year's focus was increasing employment opportunities.

Jamal Tate is one of Mecklenburg County's shining stars. An honor's student at CPCC, he's intelligent, articulate and motivated.

That's a stark contrast to the young man he was just a few short months ago.

"The second time it was armed robbery and second-degree kidnapping. And then the third time it was breaking-and-entering," said Tate.

After moving from Las Vegas to Charlotte a few years, Tate desperately wanted to fit in.

So he started hanging with the wrong crowd, experimenting with drugs, which landed him in and out of jail, until one day he heard about Mecklenburg County's Inmate Program.

"They got me my work they made sure I was in school," said Tate.

Karen Simon, director of inmate programs credits the initiative with turning Tate's life around.

The department started it four years ago to help inmates, like the teen, successfully re-enter society once they get out of jail.

"If no one will give them a job if no one will let them live into their communities they unfortunately almost forced back into the lifestyle that they were trying to escape from by necessity," said Simon.

Simon brought various agencies together to share information and raise awareness during its annual "Changing Lives, Changing Futures Community Forum."

More than a dozen exhibitors were on hand from local colleges to employers all to help people like Haywood Graham turn his life around after serving time for breaking and entering and robbery.

"I was around guys with life sentences and two life sentences, talking to those guys and seeing their freedom taken, it makes you want to do better," said Graham.

"The community has to accept that there's no locking people up and throwing away the key. They are coming back," said Simon.

Graham said he wants the community to remember, "People can change."

The national recidivism rate, the rate of people returning to prison, is between 70 percent and 90 percent.

Simon said that number drops to 40 percent for those who go through inmate programs.

If they participate in work release, the number drops to 30 percent.

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