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How a former program director at a Richmond jail, is working to curb recidivism

real life workers
(Image: VPM News Focal Point)

Dr. Sarah Scarbrough says she was raised with criminal justice running through her blood. Her father was in law enforcement. Her grandfather battled alcoholism that ultimately killed him. Both life experiences developed her passion for helping others. 

Dr. Scarbrough is the founder and director of REAL LIFE, a program that helps people who have been impacted by incarceration, homelessness or substance use disorder. The goal is to empower people to overcome barriers that could hinder their potential real-world success.  

“Through the program, we teach people how to live, but we teach them, we don't do it for them. What we tell folks when they come in is we will not work harder for you than you are willing to work for yourself,” Dr. Scarbrough said. “You know, we will work as hard as you, but we will not work harder. And that really is such an important philosophy.” 

REAL stands for “recovery from everyday addictive lifestyles.” The program started inside Richmond City Justice Center, when Dr. Scarbrough was the program director. 

“I've never really had this vision from the start to be honest, it's just been God and an amazing team that we've had together that has brought us to where we are,” Dr. Scarbrough said. “I went into the jail in 2008, as a researcher, working on my research for my dissertation for my PhD at VCU, and through that, almost five years is really when my passion was developed,” Dr. Scarbrough said. 

Thomas Young, who is a pathway navigator at REAL LIFE, said he remembered the first time he met Dr. Scarbrough.  

Young was a deputy working at Richmond City Justice Center. He said that Dr. Scarbrough walked the walls of the jail with no fear or anxiety. He said it surprised him because people who visit the facility often feel that. 

“She went on to one of the pods where we had housed a lot of violent people. And I found out later that day that she was bringing the program there,” Young said. 

Young said that after Dr. Scarbrough left the pod, there was no more noise, no more fighting. And he kept asking himself, who is this woman? 

“I knew right then that she was going to be somebody special,” Young said. “I believe in what she brings to the table. She's real. And everything she touches seems to work. I've seen her change people's lives; I've seen her implement programs that matter. I've seen her be able to motivate people to change where I haven't seen them change before. And I had to be part of it. I knew I had to be part of that.” 

The need for the program was clear, Dr. Scarbrough said.  

“What I realized is, while we did have great programming and research to back it and all of that, folks were getting out and still struggling and having hurdles and obstacles and some lead back to their incarceration. Other times it didn't, but it really hindered the success they could have. So [I] decided to start REAL LIFE in the community to help. And the vision there was to help with some, you know, bus tickets, cell phones, resume writing. And we really realized that we needed to do more, that's just putting a Band-Aid on things,” Dr. Scarbrough said. 

There’s no doubt that Dr. Scarbrough has a positive effect on people. For Marlon Jackson and Maurice Washington, REAL LIFE was the second chance they needed after being released. 

“Prior to coming to REAL LIFE my destination was going back to ... going back to prison, or death. I’ve seen a lot of it. That's all I’ve been surrounded by my whole life,” Washington said. “And today, I'm learning that my destination is limitless.” 

Washington is now a REAL LIFE graduate, and he often finds opportunity to speak about his experience and give back to his community. He went from being an inmate to a published children's book author.  

Washington said that wouldn’t have been possible without REAL LIFE.  

He first found out about the program when he was incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail and after being released and incarcerated again, it was Dr. Scarbrough who bailed him out on the condition that he join REAL LIFE.  

“I needed the program. I needed an environment where I'm not surrounded by drugs and negativity. So being [in this] environment helped me do everything ... tackle the goals that I had set out for myself. I couldn't tackle my goals, if I was using drugs,” Washington said. “I'm able to do a lot of things I couldn't do when [I was] in the streets and using.” 

Jackson was incarcerated at the age of 20. He received 26 years and ended up serving 96 percent of his sentence. While incarcerated, education and programming helped him prepare for his release but still, he felt he needed help navigating a completely new world. 

“So those were the things that helped me to prepare myself to come, you know, to come home, and especially to a world that I left as an adolescent and come back to as a 45-year-old man, and you're like, wow, you know, everything has changed. My surroundings have changed, people have changed, you know, technology has changed,” Jackson said. “But the transition period for me was, it was always rooted in my education. And I knew that as long as I had an education that I would give myself the opportunity to come from incarceration back into society.” 

When Jackson was preparing to be released, he needed somewhere to stay. So, he did his research and found REAL LIFE. 

“[Dr. Scarbrough] told me my counselor, she said, "'Oh, no. She said, oh, no, he's not going to no street. He's going to come to REAL LIFE. And we're going to work with him. I don't care how long he's been down.’” 

Now, Jackson is a house manager at one of REAL LIFE’s recovery transitional houses in Northside Richmond. 

“I never knew that I [could] go change my life, and then come back and help the very environment that are robbed of so much. And to be able to be a light for this environment that I grew up in. It [doesn't] get much better,” Jackson said. 

And although REAL LIFE has success stories, there are cases where people aren’t ready to make the necessary changes in their lives. 

“There have been times that I've wanted to just give up and go home. And that's when the heartbreak comes in, when people just don't make it and you see the heartbreak and family members' faces, or the children's faces that daddy or mommy is back at it again,” Dr. Scarbrough said. “But we keep going, because we don't, we don't stop when people don't make it, we keep going because people do make it.” 

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