By Cammie Bellamy StarNews Staff
Program helps former offenders become business-owners after release
WILMINGTON — After Lacy Tate was released from federal prison last year, he hit roadblock after roadblock on his path back to normal life.
Tate, 50, had served about 13 years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and heroin. Despite getting his N.C. Peer Support Specialist certification while behind bars — a program in which people recovering from mental illness or substance abuse are trained to help others — Tate struggled to get a foothold in Wilmington.
After living in a halfway house, he had trouble getting subsidized housing through the Wilmington Housing Authority, where he remains on the waitlist. When he applied to get food stamps, he was turned away due to his felony drug conviction. Accessing his disability checks brought another mountain of paperwork.
“After 13 years, both of my parents passed, so I came out without anything,” Tate said. “I was wrong for what I did — I sold drugs — but I’m trying to get to start over.”
Eventually, he found helping hands.
Tate enrolled in a vocational rehab program, and found a psychologist at MedNorth Health Center. Wilmington non-profit Leading Into New Communities, Inc. (LINC, Inc.), which has a council for former prisoners reentering society in New Hanover County, connected him with resources.
Finally, there was Inmates to Entrepreneurs.
Wednesday night, Inmates to Entrepreneurs graduated its second class from the Wilmington area. The organization, which opened a Wilmington office in 2018, helps North Carolinians with criminal backgrounds to start their own businesses.
Wednesday’s class of 15 graduates included an aspiring handyman, painter, Christian minister, and one woman who has already launched a dessert business called Heavenly Treats.
Founder Brian Hamilton said due to a growing demand in the Wilmington area, the organization plans to add a second class this year.
Each year, more than 22,000 men and women are released from North Carolina’s prison system, according to the Department of Public Safety. But Hamilton said anyone who’s been charged with a crime can face stigma and difficulties finding gainful employment.
“We don’t just serve people in prison, but we also serve people who have been judicially involved,” he said. “They have this record on the Internet. Even if they haven’t gone to prison, they still have the mugshot, and that’s really a big obstacle for them.”
Hamilton also praised Cape Fear Community College’s Small Business Center — and its director, Jerry Coleman — for housing Inmates to Entrepreneurs this year.
“There’s a high need in Wilmington, and we obviously look forward to continuing,” he said.
Among the graduates Wednesday was Tate, who after completing the 4-week course is opening a trucking business: Moving it Forward.
Inmates to Entrepreneurs helped him incorporate with the state, get an Employer Identification Number (EIN), and set up a domain with an email address. It also connected him with Self-Help Credit Union, where he’s started an account to build up his credit after a credit card rejection from Bank of America. After graduation, he’ll be connected with a local mentor.
The only thing he’s waiting on is for his son, Ah’God Lacy Tate, 22, to be released from prison in October. The younger Tate, in jail since age 17 on convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted robbery, took a commercial driver’s license course while in prison.
Tate’s dream is to give his son employment that keeps him from re-offending.
“I don’t want him back out in these streets,” he said. “When I talk to (my other son), when he tells me, ‘Dad, I don’t see nothing,’ it’s dark. It’s real, real sad. And it’s not just him, it’s almost all the youth that I encounter out here.”
Tate said he recommends Inmates to Entrepreneurs to anyone feeling directionless after release from prison.
“I thank God so, so much to have another opportunity,” he said. “I truly, truly thank God.”