Getting released from prison might seem like cause for celebration. But more often than not, reentry to society presents a whole new slate of challenges for ex-offenders.
“The whole issue with reentry is that many of the people who were coming back into communities, trying to reintegrate into communities, they were forgotten. And communities weren’t prepared for them or established for them,” said James J. Drylie, the executive director for the Kean University’s School of Criminal Justice.
At Kean University, employees who work in the criminal justice system volunteer to play the roles of ex-offenders. It’s a reentry simulation program, to identify any gaps or weaknesses in the system.
“Individuals in a role playing scenario are going from a location to location to location — that each of these tables represent. And if they they don’t have the appropriate paperwork then they can’t comply. If they don’t complete it in a certain period, again they can’t comply,” Drylie said.
Over the course of about two hours, participants are given a life scenario and experience the first month of post-release life. Al McDowel, a member of the Intensive Supervision Program at New Jersey’s Office of the Public Defender, was told that he was a high school dropout who served tow years in state prison and didn’t have his Social Security card, his birth certificate, or a state ID. McDowel said it was eye-opening.
“Yes, absolutely because you go one place and you’re shot to another place and it gets, you can see how it’s very easy to just say I’ll do it tomorrow. Because kind of you know it’s tough” he said.
“I have just gotten an ID that’s it, nothing else,” said Ashley Guy, an employee at the New Jersey State Parole Board. “I have about $50 or $60 left and I still have to go to probation, treatment, all that stuff.”
“I went to the doctor to get treatment I’m supposed to get for the week, and they said my drug test came back positive. When I left the treatment center a police officer arrested me,” said Shawn Wallace of St. John’s Baptist Church. “That was it back in jail. Only thing I was able to do this week was to get ID and now I’m in jail. Very frustrating.”
It’s the end of week two and many of the participants have already ended up back in jail. And the organizers say, that’s the point. To show them just how easy it is to become a re-offender.
“I actually remember having two job interviews on the same day and based on my record I didn’t get offered either one,” said Arthur Townes, ex-offender and New Jersey alumni coordinator for GEO Care.
He was released in 1998. Twenty years later he says he still comes up against the same hurdles. Townes said he hasn’t re-offended because he has a great support system.
“I believe at some point in my transition I found a purpose when someone reached back and helped me, I was kind of almost ordained or obligated to do the same,” he said.
“What needs to be done is reentry needs to start when a prisoner enters prison, not upon leaving. They need an opportunity to have an education and vocational training and counseling so they have an opportunity to be a better person when they leave corrections,” said former state Sen. Ray Lesniak.
Without these services, advocates say it’s tough to be agents of change. And as doors close for ex-offenders, so too, does their hope.