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After prison, a tumor threatened everything. How this Charlotte woman beat the odds.

Charlotte Observer - 3/27/2023

Last fall when Shaheedah Jackson’s started having trouble with her vision, she dismissed it as sign of getting older.

The 44-year-old had survived 17 years in prison — including time at The Center for Community Transitions. About to be released from the Charlotte-based reentry program, she was ready to begin anew with plans to start a business.

Then she was hit with a crushing diagnosis.

“It was a large pituitary tumor in my brain,” says Jackson. “By the end of November, I was legally blind.”

With the odds already stacked against Jackson, a tumor understandably could have been a huge setback — and the naysayers already had counted her out. Jackson, relying on faith and grit, was determined not “to be defeated,” and become another statistic, she said.

Jackson made the most of resources at the CCT including the Center for Women, a contract work release program for state female offenders. The thirty-bed facility in Charlotte is for women serving the final years of their prison sentence. For almost three decades, 87% of residents have successfully reentered their community, according to its website.

Jackson said she was fortunate to be on work release through the center, which gave her access to healthcare. In January, she had a successful surgery that removed the tumor and has since recovered her vision.

Jackson now runs her own food business called Good Portions Italian Ices with the support of her husband, Steve Jackson. The couple married in 2019 while she was still incarcerated. She operates one cart and schedules each month events to meet the community.

She envisions the business growing and becoming a place to employ teens in foster care, high school students or as an option for college interns studying social work.

“I don’t want to just make money,” Jackson said. “My bottom line is the community.”

‘Ready to live’

Jackson was raised by her mother in Winston-Salem. She learned at a young age thather father was incarcerated. While knowing that was upsetting to live with, later losing a child in neonatal death really changed her life.

That’s when things took a turn for the worst, she said.

At 27, she was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years after being charged with stealing groceries and children’s clothes for her family, she said.

When she went to prison, one of her daughters was placed in foster care. Later, when her daughter recounted the experience, to Jackson it often sounded similar to being in a prison. It’s one reason why she is passionate about helping and supporting youth in foster care.

The entire experience of being in prison could have broken her. But the love of her husband, her children and the center broke the shell she formed while being incarcerated.

The center helped her to begin to process grief she had long held. When she first arrived in October, 2020 to serve her last two years she was unsure of the facility, she said.

But during the pandemic when the center’s leadership advocated to the state Department of Public Safety on behalf of the women there, she knew they cared, she said.

“It’s a place for people who are truly transitioning,” Jackson said. “You have to have a level of determination that I didn’t even realize that I needed in getting there.”

The center’s deliberate and human-centered approach is intentional, said Patrice Funderburg, executive director of The Center for Community Transitions. At the facility, women experience a sense of independence for the first time in years, she said.

This can range from making their own breakfast, to something as small as taking their own toiletries to the bathroom, she said.

“We want you to remember you,” Funderburg said. “What better way to do that then in a community setting that does not look like a prison.”

Funderburg said the center uses research based methods to set women on a path for success. Housing, employment, reconnecting families and behavioral health were all factors they looked to address.

Included at the center is a work release program, a study release program and counseling. Over the years the center developed its Families Doing Time program to assist women with children, Funderburg said. The program includes monthly family events, in home visits and parent coaching.

“It’s holistic, social and emotional wellness for the entire family,” she said. “We call that family reunification.”

Family connection can be an important factor in reducing recidivism, according to studies. A 2014 study of incarcerated women found those who had phone contact with family were less likely to return to prison five years after release.

With her brother’s help, Jackson maintained a strong relationship with her children . He brought them on visitation days, she said.

She also used the facility’s computers to learn how to start her own business. When she wanted to join the City Startup Labs program at UNC Charlotte everyone at the center was supportive. Through the program she met a business mentor.

“I’m ready to live,” Jackson said. “Everything is over with now.”

‘They didn’t win.’

Jackson says her three children are the most important things in her life and she has a positive and strong relationship with them. But when asked who has been her backbone, she responds with one name — Steve.

The couple knew each other prior to her going to prison and eventual nuptials. Throughout her incarceration, he continually showed up — even when she pushed him away, she said.

“What I’m doing and who I am right now is in direct relation to what he is to me and how he has been there for me,” Jackson said.

Steven Jackson said he always kept the faith for his wife. As a God-fearing man, he believed in three words: faith, hope and patience, he said.

“You can’t have faith and no hope,” he said. “You can’t have hope and not be patient.”

Jackson said the judge that sentenced her has stayed on her mind. In her years of incarceration she saw many broken souls.

It was motivation to become more than a statistic or broken family, she said.

“They didn’t win,” Jackson said.

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