Life after prison: Stories from a Charlotte women’s center

Dravia Price stopped by the bank on Tuesday, got lunch, and then she went home. For anyone else, it would be a typical day in Charlotte.

But it was Price’s first day of freedom — her first bank account — in three decades.

Until this week, the 52-year-old was one of about 30 incarcerated women at the Center for Community Transitions’ women’s center. She had spent the final three months of her 30-year sentence at the facility preparing to reenter the community.

The women’s center is technically a prison, but it’s an unconventional one. The women cook for themselves, make art, garden and watch movies, as well as take part in programs aimed at making their transition back to the community as pain-free as possible. And their methods seem to work — for the past few years, none of the women who spent their final months of incarceration at the center have reentered the prison system.

Here, the women are part of a sisterhood — one that’s bound by hope.

Ready for freedom

When Karen Laws arrived at the Center for Women, she was silent. Head down, eyes to the ground.

Prison does that to you, center director Delilah Montalvo said. She sees it in many of the women when they’re first dropped off.

Now, eight months after arriving, she’s blossoming, Montalvo said. She has 17 months to go.

In prison, Laws said she just felt like a number. But here, she feels like a person again.

She heard about the CCT in 2018 from a friend in prison who managed to get into the program but was sent back to a traditional prison because of a cell phone violation.

“At that point, I was still a little messed up, up there,” she said, pointing to her head. “But when she told me about it, it was a reality check.”

The 31-year-old says she’s lived a life of “I just had to keep messing up to learn.”

Many memories of her childhood are blurred around the edges.

They’re frayed by addiction after a car accident put her on a morphine drip when she was 8. She didn’t get sober, Laws said, until prison at 23 when she was arrested for a drug-related murder. She was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.

“I lived out of a backpack and went from place to place the last five years before I was locked up,” she said. “I never had anyone to show me what was right or wrong.”

A seed was planted after the friend told her about the program, and Laws spent the next two years working toward being accepted at CCT. In October 2020, she achieved her goal.

A wide-eyed Laws was taken to a Wal-Mart before being dropped off at the center. She bought clothes and other items and headed to self-checkout.

“All of a sudden, things were talking to me,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh, no sir. This thing is talking to me. I gotta go.’ I was freaking out so I went to a cashier to check me out.”

The world was a different place than when she left it eight years ago, she realized.

“That’s why I keep challenging myself,” she said. “I’m ready for my freedom.”

Her roommate at the center, Shaheedah Martin, got her first taste of freedom Friday morning.

Worthy of love

Martin, 42, preened and fussed in front of a mirror. Outside the window, birds chirped, ushering in the morning.

“We didn’t used to have these before,” she said, carefully gluing on a pair of fake eyelashes. “One of the girls taught me to put them on.”

After all, it was a big occasion — it was Martin’s first day of work in more than 20 years.

Shaheedah Martin, at the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte, looks in the mirror before her first day of work on Friday, July 2, 2021. Khadejeh Nikouyeh

Martin, who was born and raised in Winston-Salem, first learned at nine that her father was incarcerated.

In the United States, 2.7 million children currently have an incarcerated parent. According to a study by Central Connecticut State University, those children are about three times as likely as other children to be involved with the criminal legal system, through arrest and other measures.

At first, it started with getting into trouble as a teenager. Then, Martin started stealing. That became fraudulently using credit cards.

“I don’t remember ever having a concept of what that consequence would be for bad behavior,” she says now. “I didn’t know that what I was feeling was unloved.”

Martin had her first son 27 days after she turned 16. She gave birth to a pair of twins just before turning 18.

After one of the twins died, Martin said, “I kind of lost my mind….. and I never really recovered.”

Martin said she didn’t get to process her grief.

“Nobody talked about emotions. nobody talked about anything bad. You just brushed everything under the rug… They’d say just pray about it, and it will be alright or whatever,” she said. “So that’s how I lived my life.”

Many Black Americans rely on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Before she was 20, she had two felonies on her record. She tried to get back on track but it was too late.

At 27, Martin was sentenced to at least 15 years of imprisonment after stealing groceries and children’s clothes.

She’s spent time in nearly every prison in the state — some worse than others. At times, Martin had to defend herself, or she was so scared she didn’t sleep for nights at a time.

“People say you’ve got to work really hard to get the CCT, but I got into trouble. I have a very strong personality, and prison by its chaotic nature is not the place to be docile or meek,” she said. “And I had already lived many years allowing people to just say and do and treat me any kind of way. So that wasn’t going to happen to me in prison.”

She heard about the Center for Women from a cellmate who had been sent back, and made her way there eight months ago — she and Karen arrived together (and experienced the harrowing Wal-Mart self-checkout experience together, too).

This week, Martin starts her first job at the JW Marriott — she decided on them after considering two other job offers. Leaders at the center say it’s no surprise, because Martin has always possessed a “great spirit” and lots of self-motivation.

She’ll work there until her release in September 2022. Then, she’ll get to return to her family of four, including a husband who she married in 2019 while incarcerated.

Shaheedah Martin, at the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte, puts on her earrings before her first day of work on Friday, July 2, 2021. Khadejeh Nikouyeh

It wasn’t until her time at the center, Martin said, that she realized she had always been a person worth loving.

“They let you know that you have a place in the world,” she said. “You are really a citizen, and you’re just waiting to walk out that door.”

The center’s doors are always revolving, welcoming new residents and closing for the last time behind others as they step into the world — where they’ll face a whole new set of challenges.

But the center has prepared them. Dravia Price knows she’s ready.

Regaining her dignity

Price was forced to grow up on the streets of Charlotte.

Her childhood, like most of the people who end up affected by the criminal legal system, was fraught with trauma. She was abused at home and bullied at school, so Price dropped out and started running away.

“By the time I turned 14 years old, I was living in the streets and taking care of myself doing what I had to do to survive as a little girl,” she said. “It was tough.”

She spent the next few years struggling to make ends meet.

At only 22, Price was arrested. She learned later she had been experiencing a severe case of postpartum depression.

“I came to prison in 1991 on two counts of second degree murder. My charges stem around my children,” she said in a recent interview.

“I learned that (postpartum depression) can result in a temporary psychosis,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was then, and I didn’t know how to reach out. I should have talked to somebody.”

More than 11% of mothers experience postpartum depression. Women of color are both more likely to experience postpartum depression and less likely to receive the care they need, research shows.

Although not all women get the help they need in prison, Price did. And her recovery continued at the CCT.

In her former prisons, Price said it was like everyone was clawing for different opportunities. At the CCT, they work together toward their collective goals and support each other.

“This place really is about building communities, not prisons,” she said.

“When I came here, they gave me my dignity back … They made me feel like a woman again.”

Dravia Price writes her email address down for the residents on her release day at the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte, on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Khadejeh Nikouyeh

She’s 52. More than half of her life has been spent behind confining prison walls.

On Tuesday, Price sat with Laws, Martin and other residents in the open air, passing around her release papers.

“I can’t wait to get mine,” Laws said, murmurs sounding in agreement.

Gravel crunched behind them, and Price whipped her head around.

A white Ford Explorer drove closer. Price began to tear up. She walked down the steps of the center to greet her mother.

They embraced, and she wiped her mother’s face.

“We got a lot to do,” Price said.

Khadejeh Nikouyeh contributed to this report.

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Devna Bose is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering underrepresented communities, racism and social justice. In June 2020, Devna covered the George Floyd protests in Charlotte and the aftermath of a mass shooting on Beatties Ford Road. She previously covered education in Newark, New Jersey, where she wrote about the disparities in the state’s largest school district. Devna is a Mississippi native, a University of Mississippi graduate and a 2020-2021 Report for America corps member.

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