Nationally, more than a quarter of all women who end up in prison, return to prison. A local nonprofit, Changed Choices, works to change that by providing support to female offenders from when they first enter prison and follows them even after they leave. After nearly a decade of work, only four percent of its clients have returned to prison.
Candice Ikard is hard at work behind a coffee and food stand at the Children & Family Services Center in Uptown Charlotte.
Candice has come a long way. Six years ago, she was selling crack-cocaine. It's a career path that had started a decade earlier in Statesville.
"Pretty much, I took care of myself, that's how it was," Ikard says. "So I worked a couple of jobs under the table. Kinda-sorta didn't make ends meet, umm … so I chose to start selling drugs at 14."
That's when she filed for emancipation to live with a guardian. She says she was physically abused in the single-parent household where she grew up. At the age of 25, she was arrested in a sting operation and served four years in prison.
Her first stop was the Mecklenburg County jail. That's when the group Changed Choices first approached her.
"Pretty much, I thought it was best to sit back and do my time," Ikard says. "Absolutely not!"
But Changed Choices was in her life by the time she was transferred to federal prison in West Virginia.
Changed Choices started in Charlotte about eight years ago to help female inmates at the Mecklenburg County Jail. Women who show interest go through a selection process to make sure they're committed to the program. Today, Changed Choices has about 70 clients.
"I just needed some support, I just needed somebody to be there to let me know that 'We're here', anything that you need to talk about, umm I'm not here to judge you," Ikard says. "I'm here to see you and make sure you get a visit or a book or anything that was encouraging."
Ikard met with Changed Choices mentors while she was in jail and attended classes on subjects such as parenting to domestic violence. She even completed a substance abuse program.
Once out of prison, she moved into a Changed Choices house to get settled and look for a job.
Changed Choices focuses on women in part because of their traditional role as caregivers. The program has a believer in Karen Simon. She’s the director of Mecklenburg County’s inmate program.
"When you think about the female population of incarcerated women, you have to think about the hundreds if not thousands of children that are out in the community," Simon says. "And when those children are reunited with their mother and their mother is now someone who is choosing to live a life that's productive and responsible, there's no dollar amount that you can put on the difference that that makes."
In fact, she gives $100 a month to the program.
Many in Changed Choices have a history similar to Candice's and end up using drugs as a coping mechanism, says Melissa Mummert, the client services manager.
"So when you treat the underlying issues with counseling, with support and with relationships, the need, to and desire to live life that is really not healthy, it changes," Mummert says.
Eventually, Candice got her own place and has been reunited with her two girls and one boy. But it's been challenging finding a job. It's a common problem for convicted felons.
"Just seeing so many clients of ours at Changed Choices hit that brick wall, we decided that we wanted to do something a little different than most non-profits do and to start a business, so that we could number one create jobs for our clients and number two we could shine a spotlight on this really pervasive problem in our community," Mummert says.
So Changed Choices started a coffee and food cart called Second Helping in 2011.
"There's such stigmatization around prison and criminals," Mummert says. "It's like there's such an interest in crime in our society. And yet people think of prisoners as 'Them.' Like someone different than 'Me.' When people come down here and get their donut on Donut Wednesday from Candice or Monique, it's like they just see it's a person. It's a human being. These are not statistics, these are human beings."
Candice is one of the first two employees. The goal is to have these carts throughout the city and make 400 jobs in 10 years. For Candice, her ultimate goal is to become a certified nurse's assistant, but she's thankful that this job, has given her a second chance.
"I couldn't even imagine like where would I be," Ikard says. "If I had to go back to what was familiar to me and where I you know committed the crime at, there's no question, I would still be out there doing what I done then. So it saved me from a lot and it introduced me to a lot. I know now that I am worthy of so much more."