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Council Tours W.Va. With Compassion Message For People Released From Incarceration
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In the middle of a large open room, students, professors and professionals that work with the formerly incarcerated population sit in chairs. They read their “life card,” which contains tasks and responsibilities the participant must complete each week.
The 15 minute exercise will represent one week in the life of a newly released person to help participants better understand the pressures of reentry. With a few other instructions, the facilitator starts the timer and the activity begins.
“I need money to complete all of these tasks,” Heather Gregory, Administrative Assistant, with The REACH Initiative said.
The REACH Initiative is a new program with West Virginia Reentry Councils.
Gregory is going through the simulation for the first time. The idea is to navigate keeping a job and eating while in the judicial system. Other tables have signs hanging from the front that read words like “Grocery Store,” “Court” or “Treatment.”
Standing at the table working a puzzle for seven minutes simulates a week of work. The representative at the station marks Gregory’s “life card.” After work, Gregory finds treatment and a drug screen on her card.
“She failed her drug screen for illicit drugs,” a woman behind the “drug screen” table says. “She’ll go see her probation officer.”
While at the “drug screen table,” she mentions the old warrant listed on her life card. The drug screen officials notify police, and Gregory is taken to jail.
One out of every 10 West Virginia children have a parent who has been incarcerated. As the adults navigate life after prison, the odds are stacked against them. About seven years ago, the West Virginia Council of Churches created the West Virginia Reentry Council to help people navigate the probationary system while juggling everyday responsibilities.
Beverly Sharp formed the first Reentry Council in the state shortly after she retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“During those 30 years I would often see inmates come back over and over and over again. I would talk to them and say, ‘What are you thinking?’ and they would say, ‘You just don’t understand. It’s not meant for us to make it out there.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, all right,” Sharp said. “When you hear that a couple of times, you kind of think it’s the person. When you hear that hundreds and hundreds of times over your career, you start thinking wow, there has to be something to this.”
The first council opened in Charleston. Next, councils opened in Huntington, Parkersburg, Beckley and in Martinsburg. There are currently 22 reentry councils across the state. The resources are meant to help those coming out of jail to overcome barriers and become productive citizens.
“Think about your lifetime. What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made. And how would you like to be identified by that mistake every day in everything that you do,” Sharp said. “That’s what happens once you have a criminal record. You’re forever treated like a second class citizen. You go for housing, and you fill out the application. And one of the first questions is, do you have a criminal record? Or have you ever been convicted of a felony? Or have you ever committed a crime?”
While the simulation illustrates everyday life challenges, there are federal and state specific barriers that limit the types of jobs convicted felons by law are allowed to obtain. Limitations are put on jobs in the medical field, social work and more.
“You look at social work, who better to be a social worker, than somebody that has walked that journey themselves and understands what those barriers are, and how to navigate those barriers,” Sharp said. “That’s what we try to do through the reentry councils, is we try to educate these community partners, and help them understand how to help individuals navigate through all those collateral consequences and barriers that they have. Because it’s much safer for the public, if we do that, because if you take away housing and you take away employment, you leave somebody no other choice than to commit a crime.”
“We’ve all made mistakes, we should look at that individual as a human being, as somebody that we should reach out to in love,” Sharp said. “You know, maybe take the time to talk to them and find out how [they ended] up where [they] are. Because when you start listening to these stories…you will start to understand how we ended up to be the most incarcerated nation in the world with the highest recidivism rate because of all the challenges that people face, and the inability to overcome those challenges.”
Most participants in the reentry simulation end up in jail. During the simulation, when participants successfully completed a week or even the entire “life card,” participants learned that just one act of kindness made a huge impact; a message organizers hope informs any future social workers, police officers and probation officers.
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