After 19 years behind bars, what now for Rae Carruth?

What’s next for Rae Carruth after his release from prison Monday after 19 years behind bars?

The disgraced ex-Carolina Panthers receiver hasn’t yet publicly revealed how he’ll attempt to rebuild his life now that he’s no longer confined by the razor-wire fences of Sampson Correctional Institution.

Those close to Carruth were also elusive, as his mother, Theodry Swift, declined comment to Yahoo Sports and his attorney, David Rudolf, did not respond to questions sent via email last week.

“I’m excited about just being out of here. I’m nervous just about how I’ll be received by the public,” Carruth said in a phone interview with WSOC-TV on Sunday. “I still have to work. I still have to live. I have to exist out there and it just seems like there is so much hate and negativity toward me. I’m actually somewhat frightened.”

Absent a concrete answer of what’s next for him, the most significant clue might be the activity that kept him busy inside prison. Carruth has worked for the past few years as a licensed barber, cutting fellow inmates’ hair for $1 per day, plus tips.

Rae Carruth was released from prison Monday after 19 years behind bars for conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. (AP)
Rae Carruth was released from prison Monday after 19 years behind bars for conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. (AP)

In fall 2013, Carruth was one of 20 inmates selected for Central Carolina Community College’s barbering certificate program administered at Harnett Correctional Institution, provost Jon Matthews told Yahoo Sports. Program officials choose from a pool of nearly 100 applicants each year based on the nature of their crimes, their disciplinary history in prison and the length of time left on their sentence.

During his first year in the two-year program, Carruth received over 1,500 hours of instruction on popular hairstyles for men of every age and ethnicity. Instructor Reginald Dowe also highlighted anything from infection control practices, to basic business principles, to how best to establish a rapport with clients.

At the end of his first year in the program, Carruth passed an exam administered by the North Carolina Board of Barber Examiners enabling him to receive a provisional license and to work in the prison’s barbershop. Carruth spent his second year in the program serving as an apprentice to Harnett Correctional Institution’s master barber and providing haircuts to the 1,000 inmates housed at the medium-security facility less than 30 miles south of Raleigh.

“These inmates are learning a skill they can use after they’re released to make real money,” said Matthews, Central Carolina Community College’s provost for its Harnett County campus. “The purpose of prisons is not just to lock people up. The purpose is also to rehabilitate the inmates so when they go back in the world, they can be productive citizens. This program is an integral part of their rehabilitation.

“The nice thing about barbering is, if you have an affinity for it and a skill for it, you can make a pretty good living with it.”

A social pariah?

The Panthers drafted Rae Carruth with the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft. (Getty)
The Panthers drafted Rae Carruth with the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft. (Getty)

If Carruth were able to carve out a new life for himself as a barber, he’d be a rarity among convicted felons seeking a fresh start. Most convicted felons have a hard time transitioning to life outside prison because of the struggle to find employers open to hiring them, landlords comfortable renting to them or friends willing to stand by them.

Criminology experts say the widespread publicity Carruth’s case received may make it even tougher than usual for him. Seventeen years ago, a jury found him guilty of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend and destroy their unborn child, a betrayal that horrified and captivated the American public and transformed Carruth, whom the Carolina Panthers selected in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft, into one of football’s most notorious villains.

On a dark road near Charlotte on the night of Nov. 16, 1999, Carruth abruptly stopped his vehicle in front of Cherica Adams’ car, trapping her so that the hitman he hired could pull up alongside her and fire his gun at her five times. Adams’ unborn son survived with permanent brain damage, but she slipped into a coma and died a few days later, causing Carruth to flee until police found him hiding in the trunk of a friend’s car outside a Tennessee motel.

“Once he’s out of prison, the odds are going to be stacked against him,” said Jeffrey Ian Ross, criminologist at the University of Baltimore and author of the book “Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison.” “It’s going to be super difficult for him to get a job because of the degree of publicity his case received, the ability to search his name online and employers’ access to criminal background records. It’s such a high-profile case. If you’re a football fan, you probably remember that pretty well.”

For ex-felons like Carruth, the secret to finding work is often seeking a hard-labor job that does not require a background check. Criminology experts said that professions such as roofing, welding, construction and autocare are considered to be felon-friendly.

Convicted felons seldom even land interviews in other professions because they’re typically required to disclose their past crimes on job applications. On the off chance a felon does get the chance to make a plea to a potential employer in person, the key is usually demonstrating newfound growth and maturity.

“Employers want to know what you did during your time in prison, what you learned, how you tried to improve yourself,” said Ron Krannich, who has written a handful of books aimed at helping ex-convicts find jobs. “If you don’t have a good story to tell, employers are going to be reluctant to hire you.”

The few times Carruth has broken his silence in prison, he has revealed little about how he envisions his future as a free man. He has only hinted that he may leave North Carolina and return to his native California, where he still has family to help support him and where it could be easier for him avoid the spotlight.

The North Carolina prison system actually refers to Carruth by his birth name of “Rae Wiggins,” a sign that he might be considering going by that outside prison, too, in an effort to blend in better. In a letter he wrote from prison earlier this year, Carruth said he had “long accepted [his] lot as a social pariah” but also admitted he feared the potential backlash he might face once he’s released.

“In less than a year, I will be re-entering society [God willing] and chief among my worries is my safety and well-being,” Carruth wrote.

‘We don’t feel he’s a risk to the public’

Rae Carruth was on top of the world in 1997, when the Carolina Panthers took him with the 27th overall pick. In three seasons, Carruth caught 62 passes and four touchdowns. (Getty)
Rae Carruth was on top of the world in 1997, when the Carolina Panthers took him with the 27th overall pick. In three seasons, Carruth caught 62 passes and four touchdowns. (Getty)

At 44 years old and nearly two decades removed from his last NFL game, Carruth’s football career is surely over, and it is unrealistic for him to land a coaching or broadcasting gig given his tarnished reputation. He was once an English major and aspiring screenwriter at the University of Colorado, but that path also seems far-fetched barring a publisher offering him a book deal to share his side of the story.

The most practical way for Carruth to earn a living outside prison might be to pursue the trade he learned behind bars. Since completing the two-year program at Harnett Correctional Institute in 2015, Carruth has transferred to two other North Carolina correctional facilities and cut his fellow inmates’ hair at both.

The pay Carruth received is miniscule compared to his $40,000 per game NFL salary, but the experience could prove invaluable once he’s free. Other North Carolina inmates who have completed the same program have gone on to make a comfortable living as barbers. A few have even opened their own shops.

“We hope Mr. Carruth can do the same thing,” Matthews said.

Carruth took a small step toward potentially achieving that goal in August when he had the North Carolina Department of Public Safety petition on his behalf to attain a barber’s license that will allow him to work outside prison walls. North Carolina Board of Barber Examiners Executive Director Dennis Seavers told Yahoo Sports that his organization approved Carruth’s request, albeit with a five-year probation period that allows for swift action to strip him of his license if he again violates state law.

It’s Seavers’ understanding that Carruth “doesn’t want to stay in North Carolina.” If so, he’ll have to apply for a new license in another state, but having one already in North Carolina should make that process quicker and easier.

Asked why the Board of Barber Examiners felt comfortable putting shears and a razor in the hands of a man with a felony conviction, Seavers said they have never had any problems with any of the former inmates who have come through the same barbering program as Carruth.

“We’re issuing a license, not making any commentary on him as a person, his morality or whether or not he’s offered a good enough apology,” Seavers said. “No one is required to have their hair cut by him, but we have assurances from the Department of Public Safety that he has completed their programs and met their criteria. We don’t feel he’s a risk to the public.”

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