Pete Pettersen spent time Thursday morning role-playing a person returning to society after being incarcerated in prison.
His frustration at trying to get a job with a criminal record; obtain three forms of identification; pay for rent, food, restitution and transportation; attend parole hearings — and navigate the myriad other obstacles that recently returned citizens face with very little support — was evident.
“That was one of the most stressful things I’ve done in a long time,” he said.
Pettersen was referring not to actually living as a recently freed prisoner, but to a “re-entry simulation” hosted by the Missoula Office of Probation and Parole, the Montana Department of Corrections and Partners for Reintegration, a coalition of agencies and individuals helping to fold returning citizens back into the fabric of society.
Along with two dozen other volunteers, Pettersen had to complete a long list of tasks within a certain period of time, or he ended up either in a homeless shelter or jail. By the end of the two-hour period, about half the participants ended up back in 'jail,' a corner of the room. That’s in line with Montana’s recidivism rate for high-risk released prisoners. Statewide, the recidivism rate is about 34 percent.
“The reality is, in this business, I’ve seen a lot of people who want to just go back to jail,” explained Katie Weston of the Montana Department of Corrections, one of the event’s organizers.
“This is a training we put on for community members so that everyone can see the challenges that people returning to the community face," she said. "Ideally, what everybody should leave with is maybe the understanding that the expectations from the corrections staff and the community, everybody, might be a little high. We need to temper expectations.”
Amy Chesebro, the program manager for the Missoula County Detention Facility’s jail diversion program, said the day is meant to show the public all the challenges associated with trying to build a life from scratch with so many obstacles and pressures.
“You have to figure out what comes first, and that’s one of the challenges,” she said. “You end up sort of on this rat race around town.”
Participants are given, symbolically, very little cash or items to pawn for the event. They have to figure out how to make student loan payments, get food assistance and Social Security benefits, go to counseling and treatment and find shelter, clothing and food. All the different agencies are at different locations, so the day emphasized just how much Missoula’s free bus system helps those without a lot of means. In a rural town, where one might have to pay to get to a city, it would be extraordinarily difficult.
Teresa Nygaard is the executive director of The Parenting Place in Missoula, a nonprofit organization that provides social work to those in prison and recently returned citizens to prevent child abuse and neglect. She and her staff took part in the day’s events, but Nygaard found herself in “jail” only halfway through the exercise.
“It was the system,” she said. “I didn’t have enough bus tickets and I didn’t eat. It’s a tough system. There are so many roadblocks to getting anywhere.”
Nygaard, like many who took part, found it was easier to just sit down on the chairs in jail rather than argue with the staffers at the public assistance agencies about having the right forms of ID, or trying to pawn jewelry for enough cash to pay rent.
“It’s just easier in here,” she said.
Nygaard’s sentiments go a long way towards explaining why 34 out of every 100 released prisoners in Montana end up back behind bars, costing taxpayers money, contributing to societal fractures and lost economic productivity.
Danielle Campbell, a social worker at The Parenting Place, also found herself in jail during the simulation event. She lost an ID, didn’t eat for two weeks and couldn’t pay for restitution and addiction treatment.
She said when she’s giving classes to people at the Missoula Prerelease Center, she tries to tell them that they have to find time for “self care” so that they don’t collapse under the stress of the situation.
“But they always tell me they just don’t have time for self care,” Campbell said. “Most of them have multiple jobs.”
In fact, most of the participants found that the only way they avoided jail was by seeking help from the other ex-convicts, which meant asking for bus tickets or helping each other out. Weston spoke about the training exercise on Thursday, but her words easily translate to the experiences of returning citizens.
“It’s not easy,” Weston said. “People are always very surprised at how hard it was. Some people simply give up and go sit in the jail. Which is a reality. I think people are just surprised at how much they’re expected to do by Department of Corrections staff, by social services agencies. There needs to be better cooperation from all agencies to make it easier.”
Weston said in some big cities, there are centralized headquarters for all the services. But in a place like Montana, the funding isn’t available.
“We need more community education,” she said.
For more information on reintegration efforts in Missoula, visit Missoula Partners for Reintegration at pfrmt.org.