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Man finds renewal in Eau Claire after incarceration

Leader-Telegram - 2/26/2021

Feb. 25—EAU CLAIRE — Some days Charles Woods takes a minute to look at the sky or hop on a bike for a ride. Routine activities, yet ones to which Woods is still adjusting.

Woods has explored his independence in ways large and small after being released from prison about 19 months ago. His circle of support, along with a positive mindset and spiritual maturation, allowed Woods to meet the challenges of reentering society.

Woods, 45, has lived in Eau Claire since July 2019 after more than 18 years in federal prison for cocaine distribution. He has a busy schedule holding down a full-time job and aiding formerly incarcerated people. Woods also helps run a small business and works as a life coach. He is an example of successful reentry after prison, but that doesn't mean it has been easy.

"It's still sinking in," Woods said. "My mind is getting back to understanding that it's in society, that you can move around, that you're not in a cage anymore."

Growing up

Woods was born and raised in Chicago, the oldest child of four. Weekends often included family gatherings at his grandparents' nearby house. Culinary arts was one of the fun-loving Woods' favorite high school classes, and he "makes a mean dish of spaghetti," said his mother Denise Woods.

Portia Morgan, Woods' younger cousin, said he was a combination of older brother and father figure.

"His opinion always mattered," Morgan said. "He always looked out for me, no matter what."

Woods met Leslie Stephens when they were high school freshmen. The two dated for a few years. Stephens said Woods was outgoing and loved to laugh. They shared many fond memories but when he moved away shortly after high school they lost touch.

Woods started selling drugs as a teenager.

"I was chasing material things and wanting to be with the cool crowd," Woods said.

Woods was twice found guilty of distributing small amounts of cocaine while in high school. Morgan knew Woods sold drugs because of his clothes, cars and gifts, but she said he never glorified that lifestyle to her.

Woods eventually moved to Peoria, Ill., where he sold crack cocaine. In 2000, Woods was charged with distributing more than five grams of crack. A few months later, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. His two previous convictions lengthened the sentence.

Denise Woods was incredulous when the sentence was announced.

"I just wanted to scream," she said. "After that, when I looked at the judge, it was like I saw a monster sitting there ... If you want to punish him, I understand that, but 30 years?"

Woods didn't understand the impact his sentence would have on his loved ones until he was behind bars.

"Man, what was I thinking?" Woods said. "(I'm) not really realizing that everybody's going to be doing this time with you. Everybody's life is changed."

Denise felt like she served the sentence alongside her son. Her disposition changed from fun-loving to despondent while her son was incarcerated.

"I just wasn't the same," Denise said. "We missed him so much — his life, his jokes, everything about him."

Denise always ended her letters to Charles by encouraging him to stay fit mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally in prison. She also sent him books and magazines to maintain his awareness of the outside world.

Woods thanked his loved ones for their assistance during and after his incarceration.

"It takes a hell of a support system and a hell of a mentality to weather the storm," Woods said. "You have to give them their flowers while they're here. I don't ever want to forget them and let them know how appreciative I am."

Sentencing disparities

Woods said he was an "ignorant-minded young man beginning to find knowledge of self" when he entered prison. He eventually attended weekly religious services which, along with reading the Bible and the Quran, led to what he called a spiritual awakening.

"Your mind begins to open up," Woods said. "That was ... what began to change my life."

With more perspective, Woods realized that selling drugs was a frivolous, harmful pursuit.

"I don't even know what I was really chasing," Woods said. "I was getting money fast and I didn't even have an objective."

As he learned more American history, Woods was outraged by the country's oppression of Black people like him and regretted playing a role in that history by dealing crack.

"I'm hurt and saddened that I contributed to selling drugs to my own people," Woods said.

Woods admitted to distributing cocaine but questioned the sentence he received as part of what he called the "racial disparity crack law."

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986, five grams of crack carried the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. That disproportionately affected Black Americans.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2003, "more than 80% of the defendants sentenced for crack offenses (were) African American, despite the fact that more than 66% of crack users (were) white or Hispanic."

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act set new standards. The First Step Act, passed in December 2018, retroactively applied those standards. That meant Woods qualified for release, but it took several months for his case to be considered.

Surprise release, healing

Woods expected the hearing on July 17, 2019, to end like all the others: with him remaining in prison. But a judge ruled he was free to leave that day.

A short time later, a phone call woke Morgan. On the other end, her brother exclaimed that Woods was released.

"I thought I was dreaming," Morgan said. "It came out of nowhere. I was so happy and overjoyed ... I couldn't believe it was true."

A friend picked up Woods and drove him two hours from Federal Correctional Institution, Oxford, to Eau Claire for the next chapter of his life. Woods surprised a few family members, none of whom knew he was released. His mother happened to be in Eau Claire visiting his brother.

Denise Woods recalled her disbelief when she first saw Charles.

"I heard somebody say, 'Mom,' and I turned around and I was in shock," Denise Woods said. "As he got closer, I said, 'Charles, is that you?' ... It was almost a miracle from God himself how everything went."

Nearly every day since his release, mother and son have texted each other "good morning," which she said keeps them connected.

Her stress and sadness decreased when her son left prison, but the painful memories of his incarceration remain.

"I'm getting better," Denise Woods said. "We both are ... It's a healing process."

It wasn't possible to reconnect with everyone, though. The most notable absence is his son, Charles Woods III, who died two years ago of a heart attack at age 18. The sorrow lingers, but Woods carries on.

Offering guidance

Woods became a certified life coach in 2017 after taking courses in prison, and he initially worked with several incarcerated men. He currently coaches three people, and they talk one-on-one every week, with Woods asking questions to help them reach personal and professional goals.

"I'm the one that comes on and basically brings out of you what you already have within you," Woods said.

Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Kim Cronk works with Woods to improve her life balance and self-care, and she said everyone could benefit from a life coach.

Woods also posts motivational daily quotes and a weekly video, and some men newly out of prison have reached out after seeing those. Woods encourages them to realize they have agency over their lives, and it helps that he knows their difficulties firsthand.

"I identify with them and I understand their struggles," Woods said. "They want to know, 'How the hell do you do it? What is the recipe?'"

His recipe involves framing life after prison as one of two tracks: the angry, bitter road that could lead back to incarceration, or the self-motivated, empowering road equipped to handle life's obstacles.

Providing support

Woods is also practicing the lessons he preaches. Arie Johnson said it took time for Woods to accept that he controlled most aspects of his life after incarceration.

"In prison, if you need something or want something, you have to depend on other people," Johnson said. "Him realizing that he could do all of this on his own and at his will was probably the biggest adjustment."

Woods lived with Johnson and her kids for about six months after his release. Johnson knew of Woods going back many years, since his brother is her children's father, but they first spoke in 2016.

When Woods was transferred to FCI Oxford in 2017, Johnson often visited him. She quickly learned they had much in common.

"It was like we had known each other forever," Johnson said.

While incarcerated, Woods actively thought about reentering society. Despite his plans, it was difficult adjusting to a world far different than the one he knew before prison. Yet Woods was excited to learn what had changed. Johnson said he always asked questions and tried new activities "at 100 miles per hour."

Like his friends and family have supported him, Woods wants to provide guidance for people attempting to reintegrate. He said difficulties will inevitably occur, but they are temporary.

"Of course it's not easy, but who actually told you it was going to be easy?" Woods said. "At least in society, you have more resources, more people you can reach out to."

Areas for improvement, reform

Resources exist, but they could be better. Woods said improvements to lessen the chance of recidivism include technology education, affordable housing and better job opportunities. He also said essential documents like an ID card should be available to incarcerated people the minute they leave prison.

In the weeks following his release, Johnson helped Woods obtain a driver's license and arrange transportation to and from his job.

"When they send you out of prison, they just send you out with nothing," Johnson said. "You have to start your life all over."

Woods works at American Phoenix, the first place he applied after his release. He knows his fortune in quickly finding employment, since that is often difficult for someone with a felony.

Woods has also become active in social issues. After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last May, Woods spoke about police brutality and justice reform at a rally in the Twin Cities.

"That's what I'm passionate about: fighting for the voiceless person, fighting for the person that's sitting in prison with no one speaking on their behalf," Woods said.

Woods said justice reform must include input from incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black. In 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, Black people made up 12% of the country's adult population but 33% of its incarcerated population in state and federal prisons.

Cronk agreed that incarcerated people must have a key voice in reform.

"Every decision-making table we have needs to have people with lived experience leading," Cronk wrote in an email. "What could our community look like if we had less reliance on systems and professionals and utilized the strengths, insight, gifts and knowledge of people who have been able to navigate through the depths of these systems?"

Woods is using his knowledge in the work he recently began at Inn Towne, an affordable housing building in Eau Claire that offers reintegration support for men returning from incarceration.

Inn Towne owner Tab Butler met Woods in December 2020 and invited him to a virtual meeting in January. Woods said everything worthwhile required patience and encouraged residents to keep making progress.

Butler said the men at Inn Towne appreciated his comments, and she recently hired Woods as a life coach to work with residents for a few hours each week.

"We're always looking for people who can lend support to the men here, and Charles is just a good fit," Butler said. "He's got this cultural competency that can really help people returning to the community."

Building relationships

Morgan is proud of but not surprised by the work Woods has done for himself and others. They talk often, and Morgan said her cousin's discipline and encouragement inspire her.

"Ever since he's been home, it's like a spark of my energy and my talent have come back," Morgan said. "He's always going to push the next person to be better ... I got my big brother back, I got my father figure back, I got my mentor back, and there's no greater feeling in the world."

Woods and Stephens have also reunited many years after dates to malls and movie theaters. A novel Stephens read in 2019 made her think of Woods, and she wanted to reconnect. She initially planned to write a letter to Woods in prison. Then she learned he had been released about a week earlier.

Stephens called him, and Woods seemed largely like his old self.

"It was just good to hear his voice," Stephens said. "I could tell he was happy to be in society ... I still saw that same person, someone who liked to laugh and enjoy life."

Stephens has noticed the effects of confinement, such as Woods sometimes bottling his emotions, but she said "the core of him is the same."

They continued talking after that first phone call, and Stephens moved to Eau Claire in December 2019. They have shared an apartment since last summer and are about to move into a house.

"I'm ready to start this new journey of our relationship," Stephens said.

Stephens enjoys activities she and Woods do together, such as cooking a Taco Tuesday meal, a weekly routine they've done for about six months. They also run a hair and skin care business that started last fall, something Woods encouraged Stephens to do.

"A lot of our time is us working, building each other up," Stephens said. "He inspired me to just go for it."

She also noticed Woods' ability to motivate others at a Twin Cities rally last summer.

"Every time I hear him speak, I think I'm more in awe than anybody," Stephens said.

Woods has also connected with his daughter Dezabrea Hollins, who recently moved to Eau Claire. He texts her almost every morning, and she appreciates that he is present.

That was not the case for the vast majority of Hollins' life. She was raised in Peoria by her mother and didn't know anything about Woods until adulthood, when she met him at Oxford prison.

When he was released, Woods wanted to become an active part of his daughter's life. Hollins approached the relationship essentially as a blank slate, saying she didn't have expectations other than him providing paternal support.

"It was pretty much, 'Come in here and be my dad. Just be here,'" Hollins said.

That has occurred, and Hollins said Woods serves as a sounding board and mentor.

"He's just always there when you need him," Hollins said. "He teaches you how to speak up for yourself."

Their relationship began well and has improved over the past two years.

"My dad actually makes me feel the love," Hollins said. "He thinks highly of me, and I think highly of him ... We definitely go head to head, because we're both stubborn, but other than that, we've got a great relationship. That's my bestie. I really appreciate him."

Staying on track

After his release, Woods sometimes became frustrated with his lack of progress in life, but Johnson reminded him what he had already accomplished.

"Who gets out after 20 years and gets a decent job within two weeks and gets a car and a house?" Johnson said. "I'm like, 'You have come farther than a lot of people in your situation.' ... He really has stayed the course and has done a lot for only being out for 19 months."

That includes rekindling a relationship with Stephens. A particularly memorable experience involved a surprise birthday party Stephens organized for Woods last summer in Chicago. Hollins and extended family members attended, and Stephens delighted in seeing Woods' shocked, cheerful reaction.

At one point they danced to "Take Me Home" by Phil Collins, a song Woods listened to in prison while picturing his release.

"He works so hard to build up everybody else, (so) it was nice to know that he was given something that he always wanted," Stephens said. "To see something that he envisioned come to life — that'll stay with me."

As Woods and Stephens swayed to the tune, it didn't matter that they lost contact for nearly two decades. Their paths crossed again, and, surrounded by loved ones, they celebrated with joyful abandon.

Listening to the song was a simple pleasure, like gazing at the sky or riding a bike, but it was one Woods took a moment to cherish in his new life.


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