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Criminal Justice

Re-entering society after incarceration: NCC program spotlights struggles

Lehigh Valley Justice Institute Workshop
Jay Bradley
About 45 participants took part in the workshop, including officials from Northampton and Lehigh counties

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It takes a lot make it out of incarceration successfully — not just coming out from beyond bars, but to re-enter society.

Officials — some of whom even are part of the criminal justice system — learned that as participants in the "Roadblocks to Re-entry" event at Northampton Community College learned this week.

The workshop was organized by the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute in partnership with Franklin Together, the re-entry coalition of Franklin County.

  • The "Roadblocks to Re-entry" event at Northampton Community College brought officials, social workers and students together to experiences the challenge involved with reentering society after incarceration
  • Participants emulated four weeks of responsibilities sourced from real-life stories, with many seeing the potential for recidivism from lack of resources
  • Formerly incarcerated individuals in attendance and organizers saw it as an important eye opening opportunity for those who had never experienced it, especially for county officials

The Institute is an independent research, policy and advocacy organization that works partially out of Northampton Community College that focuses on issues of criminal justice processes in the Lehigh Valley region.
During the simulation, 45 or so participants were given the back story and persona of a formerly incarcerated person, and given various combination of tokens representing money, transportation passes and property.

Each back story was based on the actual case of someone from Franklin County with whom the organization had worked.

Many attendees were given dolls to represent children who needed care.

Reaching goals not easy

After instruction by Franklin Together's Kim Eaton, participants each had to live out four weeks for their assigned character in 15-minute spans — showing all that needed to be done in that time, be it going to or seeking employment, dealing with child services, substance addiction treatment, attending support groups or going to required meetings.

Despite sounding simple when initially presented, it wasn't easy to reach goals of maintaining the home, feeding your family, keeping appointments, working and making payments.

For example, approaching the employment center, a line filled up immediately, taking significant chunks of the 15-minute day as most of the crowd scrounged for work only for many to be turned away partly through the line, told they need a new I.D.

After another line, applicants were told they wouldn't get assistance until the next week, leaving them without enough for food or rent.

For money, some took out loans, sold blood plasma or took other desperate means in addition to or in lieu of work when it was not enough or not available.

In between going to different tasks and social service organizations, they often had their progress impeded by random events.

Those at the stations often gave participants a hard time, asking for documents and other specifications as if they were really in the situation.

At times, participants had to go to a designated jail area, while others were given fines and other roadblocks throughout the process.

Each location required a transportation pass to emulate gas cost or bus fare, and money almost always was tight.

Justice institute workshop backstory
Jay Bradley
Each participant was given a backstory for their character, along with tokens for transportation, property and cash

Difficulty keeping up

Some attendees spoke about confusion, or that they were not able to “eat” a prior week. Many were given eviction notices for not being able to keep up rent payments.

"In the first two weeks, it was very challenging, just not having an I.D., trying to know where things are," said Donna Forrester, a drug and alcohol caseworker at the Lehigh County Jail.

"I didn't know where any local resources were, and even when I asked people, they weren't so forthcoming, because they didn't have the knowledge."

Forrester said she wanted to come to be able to be more in touch with those she services in her work.

She said that as time went on, it became easier as she learned where to go and how to accomplish the different items on the checklist, but up until the end it was a very stressful experience, missing key payments along the way.

Just in order to work, many had to pay to get a replacement I.D., which involved a week of processing and a $20 fee, something that organizers say reflects a frequent occurrence after property is lost during incarceration.

That could lead to delays in attaining work, housing or health care.

"I've never seen and understood what the inmates leaving would go through," Forrester said.

"I could see why people will go back. You have no finances, you have no support, you have no resources, you've got to pay your fines and your bills. So what's gonna happen? You're gonna get violated, and go right back."

Seeing problems first-hand

Many of those who participated, like Forrester, worked in social services, while others were public officials or students — most seeking to learn more about challenges they never encountered themselves but affect many.

"I think it was very successful," Justice Institute Executive Director Joseph Welsh said.

"The whole point was to have people who may intellectually know all of these things feel it on a gut level, and see exactly what the frustrations are trying to meet a myriad of requirements to be able to get back into the community."

Welsh said the justice institute is interested in doing such simulations in the future, focused on re-entry or other issues such as poverty. He said he hopes more lawmakers and officials from both Lehigh and Northampton counties will attend.

Participants pawning Justice Institute
Jay Bradley
Participants had to get money to fuel their expenses of food, rent and other services via work and other means such as pawning property, as at this station.

"If you don't have food, you don't have shelter, you don't have any of this stuff, you're bound to go back to prison," Jose Rivera, a board member of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute who was formerly incarcerated said.

"You need that person that's going to stop you and push you and motivate you and understand you. Because if no one truly understands what you're going through, you're gonna fail."

Opening the eyes of attendees

Lehigh County Comissioner Bob Elbich said he had participated in a similar simulation in the past, and worked with the justice institute to bring the event to life after seeing its benefit.

"The people who really should be here are the people who make the regulations and the rules, like our state legislators," Elbich said.

"Those are the folks who write the legislation that sets policy and the regulations that all have to be followed, that intertwine and create the impediments for people to get back into society.

"We set up all these obstacles within our systems. Some are well meaning, but they compete with each other and they add up and they build."

Lehigh County Comissioner Zach Cole-Borghi was paired with state Superior Court President Judge Jack Panella as his father in the simulation, who later lost him to Children and Youth Services.

"I think the biggest thing starting off is figuring out where to begin, there was so much confusion," Cole-Borghi said. "You fall into a pattern of 'What do I put off this week to make sure I get done what needs to be done?' "

Participant in Justice Institute Program
Jay Bradley
Participants had to manage various challenges and resources during each simulated week, including food, rent, childcare and required meetings - all of which needed to be checked off on a given sheet of paper as part of the exercise.

"You can't go to work because you're the treatment center, and just one thing after another, it's a snowball effect."

"If you don't have food, you don't have shelter, you don't have any of this stuff, you're bound to go back to prison"
Jose Rivera, board member of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute and formerly incarcerated person

'Struggle has stayed with me'

Panella, who sits on the intermediate state appellate court and previously was a trial judge in Northampton County, said cutbacks from the federal government have led to county-level services for incarcerated people being cut back, so he believes it's very important that county officials attend such programs.

"I think it's very beneficial to understand the hoops that everybody has to go through," Panella said. "Not everybody in the criminal justice system is a sympathetic figure or a victim themselves.

"There are some people who are truly very dangerous, and you have to know the difference there. You have to know who you have to protect society from and who actually needs help.

"They're just as much victims as sometimes the victims of crime. So I think that part of the analysis, this program is very beneficial.

"A judge has to understand the person who needs incarceration and the person who really needs help, but probation officers are so overworked that they have very limited time to really give special attention to anybody."

"Thank God, I didn't have any mental health issues think I didn't have any kids. I can't imagine if I had."
Melissa Amator, a counselor who attended on behalf of Trinity Episcopal Church and Easton

Melissa Amator, a counselor who attended as a participant on behalf of Trinity Episcopal Church and Easton, said she previously went through the ordeal of re-entry, and hopes that others could leave with their eyes opened to the struggles involved and the need to revamp areas of the justice system to reduce recidivism.

"The struggle of that has always sort of stayed with me, and remembering how difficult that part of my life was," Amator said.

"And thank God, I didn't have any mental health issues think I didn't have any kids. I can't imagine if I had."