When Saichelle McNeill hears “no,” she believes “yes” is around the corner.
McNeill, 43, faced an avalanche of “no” upon release from federal prison in September 2015 after a 27-month sentence for improper preparation of an income tax return, wire fraud and identity theft in Greensboro. She’d left behind a life with a six-figure salary and two homes. McNeill, who now lives in Charlotte, figured she’d return to her job at Kraft Foods since the crime wasn’t work-related.
“Thinking that all things are fair, I hoped when I returned home, I could at least go back to the manufacturing world because my crime had nothing to do with what I was doing in the workplace,” she said.
McNeill, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Fayetteville State University and a master’s in management and marketing from American InterContinental University, returned with drive and determination.
Working with headhunters to find a new job, an opportunity presented itself: an entry-level manager position at Corning’s Hickory plant for $65,000. She was open about her past. The human resources department assured her everything was OK.
McNeill accepted the offer after a drug screening and background check. Then the bottom fell out.
Corning sent a certified letter rescinding its offer two days prior to what would have been her first day. It sent McNeill into what she described as a “place of deep, deep depression.”
Women are often overlooked when it comes to re-entry resources as their numbers grow. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.9 million women were released from U.S. jails and prisons in 2016, accounting for 18% of all American re-entries. In North Carolina, 67,500 women were freed from custody, 15% of the state’s total.
“Given the dramatic growth of women’s incarceration in recent years, it’s concerning how little attention and how few resources have been directed to meeting the reentry needs of justice-involved women,” Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative wrote in a 2019 report. “After all, we know that women have different pathways to incarceration than men, and distinct needs, including the treatment of past trauma and substance use disorders, and more broadly, escaping poverty and meeting the needs of their children and families.”
McNeill worked at Waffle House for seven months after release, followed by a job at a dining hall as a line cook. Positioning herself to never be told “no” again became her goal.
“I wanted to position myself so that no one would, you know tell me no, that I will be the person responsible for creating jobs, that I will be the person responsible for pulling someone else up, and giving them an opportunity, and showing them that it can be done,” McNeill said. “You can have some setbacks and still be successful.”
No ‘concept of redemption’
Travis Williams spent most of his adult life in prison.
The Kannapolis native didn’t have consecutive years without incarceration between the ages of 18 and 27, spending time in 14 federal and state prisons. He was released in March 2016, a week after his 27th birthday.
Williams describes his upbringing as “tumultuous,” constantly moving from state to state and his parents breaking up. When a lack of guidance and structure met his potential, Williams was drawn to white-collar crime, including bank fraud and identity theft.
“I was even visited by the Secret Service at the age of 16, where they suspected I was up to no good,” said Williams, who committed crimes in five cities, including Charlotte, Concord and Kannapolis. “They basically tried to counsel me like, ‘hey, we will see you again. You are either going to go this six-figure route or you are going to come with us.’ When I turned 18 is kind of when it started.”
As a young adult, Williams said “there was no reaching me at that point” as he launched a life of crime.
“I like to believe that I have always been good at heart and well intentioned,” Williams said. “Maybe I was impatient with acquiring things, but I always was looking to help people and to do good for my community, for my family, for others.”
According to Prison Policy Initiative, 67,000 people were incarcerated in North Carolina in 2018, with 11,000 in federal prisons, 36,000 in state facilities prisons and 19,000 in local jails. Nationally, over 600,000 people are released from federal and state custody annually, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Two-thirds are rearrested within three years of release and half are re-incarcerated.
“Once you’ve paid your debt, you pay for the rest of your life,” said Dante Bryant PhD, a social work professor at UNC Charlotte. “It’s unfortunate because that can unravel someone’s entire life and the social implications of that (are far-reaching). When you talk to people who’ve never been to jail or who’ve never been arrested, if you ask the average person about someone who's been incarcerated, I don’t think we function socially with any concept of redemption.
“I don’t think we really believe that our criminal justice system is designed to reform people. As a society, we don’t believe that.”
Setting up shop
McNeill endured more rejection before landing the “yes” that changed everything.
While incarcerated, she toyed with the possibility of entrepreneurship, considering opportunities that required a small initial investment, but offered a large return on investment. Ultimately, she landed on the idea of a mobile laundry or dry-cleaning services.
“This is a good part of the story,” McNeill said. “I went to over 50 dry cleaners and laundromats in Charlotte to see if they would work with me and be the processor for my mobile laundry business. Fifty-two people told me no.”
The 53rd – Paul Kwon of Sunrise Cleaners on Albemarle Road – initially told McNeill no because he didn’t have time and was going on vacation. McNeill returned a week later, determined to learn the business, even if that meant working for free.
“He said because I agreed to come in and work and learn, that made him comfortable with me and made him want to work with me,” she said.
After six months in Kwon’s shop, McNeill launched a mobile laundry service, Washroom Laundry, in 2016. Within six months, she bought one of his shops, Sunrise Dry Cleaners, which was forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is in the process of expanding Washroom Laundry to her hometown of Fayetteville. She also recently bought two additional vans to expand its footprint in Charlotte.
“I am not working for anyone in corporate America, but I am working for myself,” McNeill said. “My company is thriving here in Charlotte. I am able to be an employer to other people. We have a very good reputation for customer service, and that lends itself to knowing that it doesn’t matter who you are. If people see something genuine in you, you can be successful.”
Washroom Laundry also offers employment to graduates of The Center for Community Transitions’ Lifeworks! program at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont’s Opportunity Campus on Wilkinson Boulevard.
McNeill, a Lifeworks! graduate, put her corporate experience to work helping classmates build resumes and prepare for interviews.
“Knowing some of the challenges we face post incarceration, I understand returning citizens are an untapped workforce and it is a workforce of people who have seen those challenges,” said McNeill, who has hired two CCT alumni. “They are tired of hearing ‘no,’ and they are ready to prove themselves.”
Education was a source of solace for Williams during incarceration. He studied U.S. history, comparative religions, and finance. He even taught himself Spanish.
“Through educating myself, I was able to see like a more holistic approach to the world,” he said. “That is when I started to think, ‘hey, keep that same ambition and that same outside of box thinking, but let’s just do this the right way, because you have the capacity to do it.'”
Williams expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in business and economics from Ashford University this year. He enrolled in 2016 shortly after release and faced no issues with acceptance or financial aid. Transportation, employment and housing proved more difficult.
“I could give you stories for days here,” said Williams, who often relied on his mother and friends for rides.
He worked as an industrial cleaner, earning $8 an hour, then picked up a second job at a gas station at the same rate.
“The whole while I am looking like, ‘hey, I can do leadership,’ or ‘hey, I have these soft skills or computer skills,’” Williams said.
He recalled that interviews with potential employers would go well but were hesitant to take a chance on hiring him because of his record. A friend introduced him to City Startup Labs, which was preparing to expand its Millennial Entrepreneurship Program to the formerly incarcerated. Williams completed City Startup Labs’ Reentry Entrepreneurship Program’s inaugural cohort. Today he’s REEP’s director.
“Having gone through the Reentry Entrepreneurship Program, I was able to get a much better understanding of leadership,” said Williams, who completed REEP and probation in 2019.
The 16-week training program includes a monthly stipend of $1,000 to help bridge the gap, a two-three-month internship period, during which participants receive $1,500 per month.
The final step is what City Startup Labs founder Henry Rock described as a business in a box, which provides them with $2,500 in initial funding and six months of back-office support.
“I wish I could afford Travis full time,” Rock said. “He’s doing this in his spare time and is able to coordinate a lot of the training and has done far more than I would have been able to do singularly in this. He is someone who saw the merits of what is that we conceptualized and actually went through the process.”
Up from nothing
McNeill’s re-entry was more than overcoming employment barriers. Healthcare — she suffers from migraine headaches — was an issue. So was reclaiming her family.
“As in other stages of the criminal justice system, most post-release policies and programs were created with the much larger male population in mind,” Sawyer said. “But research makes clear that women returning home have a significantly higher need for services than men, and that re-entry supports should be responsive to the particular needs of justice-involved women.”
Said McNeill: “I came from prison with nothing. I went to prison, and I had a lot of stuff. I had two homes. I had savings. I had a 401k. The government took all of my 401k.”
McNeill was separated from her husband and mother to a 6-year-old daughter, J’Nai, when she went to prison. J’Nai’s father took custody.
“Post-incarceration, I had the battle of my life,” McNeill said. “I had to go to family court for custody and fight this legal battle with no money. Things have just come full circle. My daughter is now 14. She is a resident of North Carolina and Maryland. She lives between the two of us. I have gotten my life back on track.”
While enrolled in REEP, Williams got an entry-level, third-shift job with Snyder’s-Lance cleaning machines. He knew he could do more.
“I kept talking to the HR person, because again I had flying colors during the interview,” Williams remembered. “She just kept trying. She said, ‘let me talk to my superior.’ Somehow it just went through. They welcomed me on, and they got my foot in the door.”
Williams earned a double promotion that allowed him to add a leadership position to his resume. Today he is a project/regional manager for Freight Breakers.
“He started off working graveyard shifts, as hourly wage employee and made his way to supervisory position, with this company, and then now with a logistics company where he has some senior management responsibilities,” Rock said. “It is just an amazing story.”
Housing proved more difficult. Upon his release, Williams relied on family or friends as he struggled to find a place to call his own.
“It was very difficult for me to get anywhere, an apartment or a house,” he said. “That resulted in me being in a lot of situations I did not want to be in, either staying with women or staying with mom. Housing was a big barrier.”
Even with excellent credit and financial stability, housing was an issue. He found a house for rent, but the owner initially rejected his application due to his background. Something told him to be persistent with the property manager.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was begging, but I asked: ‘can you ask them again,’” Williams said. ‘What if I have a larger double deposit? Is there any way I could get in this home?’”
Williams ultimately rented the home, but later received an eviction notice when the owner decided to sell. He had nowhere to go until his mother, Laurie, intervened.
“The happy part of this story is my mom stepped up and she helped me purchase that house,” Williams said.
“It’s mine now.”