By Alex N. Gecan
Marin Independent Journal
Reprinted with permission
About 60 Marin County employees, non-profit staffers and health specialists got a taste of the other ends of their jobs Wednesday. They stepped into the shoes of the people who come through their doors every day, trying to stay free.
The exercise, organized by the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services and carried out at the Marin Center Exhibit Hall, was designed to show the participants – probation officers, jailers, mental health professionals, substance abuse experts – what it’s like to try to rejoin society after being locked up.
The stakes may have been imaginary but the participant said the frustration, confusion and shame they felt butting up against bureaucratic obstacles were very real.
“It’s very challenging,” said Carol Mangilit, a county staffer who portrayed a character named “Andrew.” Spending the morning acting as a former inmate “makes me want to be more patient,” Mangilit said.
Each participant was assigned a character of a recently released prisoner and had to perform tasks such as obtaining identification, shopping for food, getting jobs, checking in with probation workers, undergoing drug treatment and going to court.
Some made tough calls – opting to stay homeless for the purpose of the exercise because they could not afford rent, or simply committing new crimes to stay solvent.
“We’re stressed out,” said Karl Smith, a caseworker at the Ritter Center. His character, “Ross,” waited his first simulated week in line to get identification. He still wasn’t able to, meaning he couldn’t do anything else and would have to start his second week back in line.
Danielle Knots, who works in the county’s probation office, said there simply wasn’t enough time in the simulated week to complete every task. Her character in the exercise, “Wabin,” tested positive for drugs.
“So I couldn’t work, so I lost my home,” she said.
Frank Starks, a Ritter Center manager, played a judge during the exercise. Eight case managers at the San Rafael nonprofit are responsible for helping 93 clients stay housed.
Small missteps for those on the fringes, like loitering or a drug offense, can mean winding up in jail, he said.
Kyle Hara, a crisis specialist who works with former prisoners reentering society, said many of them don’t have the organizational or problem-solving skills necessary to keep them on track. Many prisoners, he said, are “severely mentally ill.”
During the exercise, Hara acted as a discount medical care provider which, despite the name, ate up much of the participants’ budget and frequently returned results they could not understand or explain, like positive drug tests.
The organizers of the exercise hope agency workers will [learn] to show a little more patience, thus giving former prisoners a better chance of finding productive lives.
“I know there’s little things that we can do each day with the people that we work with,” said Rebekah Batcharie Reali, a county social worker. It doesn’t have to be much, she said – a smile, a little help looking up a piece of information, “something tiny to help them put one foot in front of the other.”
Michael Lamorte, a counselor in San Rafael, said that the repeated roadblocks and bureaucratic hurdles can be too much for those trying to get their lives back together.
“It’s so much easier to give up and go to jail,” he said.