Mike Tharp: Going straight? Or straight back to jail?

April 24, 2009 

Mike Tharp

"Hell is other people," wrote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He could've been writing about one of the most important meetings in Merced this year.

On Tuesday morning at Gateway Community Church, some 50 ex-cons and a dozen do-gooders -- serious do-gooders -- sat on gray-cushioned chairs around tables in the church auditorium.

The future of the ex-cons depends on the people they'll meet after this meeting. Their future depends on other people. If they go with people they met today who want to help them, they may make it. If they go with people who got them into this room in the first place ...

They didn't come for the free breakfast. They didn't come for the stand-up sermons 13 men and women delivered. They didn't come for any other reason than that they had to be there.

Mostly men, they'd all gotten out of prison or jail within the last month. Part of their parole required them to show up, sign in, sit through the speeches and decide whether they were going to go straight.

Or straight back to jail.

Why was this one of the county's most important meetings of the year? Even though it's held every month? Because it represented the county's best -- and in some cases, last -- effort to get these folks back into society. Back into their families, the work force, back into humanity.

Some of you will say the cons deserve no breaks -- they got what they deserve. Some will say the efforts should focus on decent folks who need help. But consider the alternative: If the county and Parolee and County Team don't try to help these men and women, they're almost certain to fall into the same old downward spiral.

And if what Jesus said -- whatever you do unto the least of my brothers and sisters you do unto me -- doesn't work for you, keep in mind that it costs taxpayers around $35K to warehouse an inmate for a year, according to the California Republican Party.

In other words, the more we keep out, the more we can spend on our other needs.

Tuesday's meeting was part tent revival, part job fair, part counseling session, part red-tape seminar, part AA and NA meeting.

The sum exceeded the parts.

Officially, it was called a Parole Orientation Meeting, part of the Parolee and County Team, or PACT program. It was held to "provide recently released parolees with a 'one-stop shopping' location, structured to educate parolees about county resources."

Think "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" with Oprah and "Intervention" thrown in for a full script.

Laughter, poetry, tears, prison yard kabuki, infomercials and a sense of ...

Hope, for sure. But also of destiny. A sense that, for all the information -- about food stamps, job prospects, college credits, family reconciliation, sobriety and faith -- there remained, hanging over the tables like the cigarette smoke they could exhale outside after the meeting. ...

A sense of despair.

You could call it a last shot at getting well again -- in both the psychological and druggie sense of that phrase.

Wayne Davison, an empathetic parole agent, spoke after a prayer. How many of you are here for the first time, he asked. Three or four folks raised their hands. How many are here after three or more (prison) terms? Half the hands in the room went up.

The first set of hands represented hope.

The second set represented despair.

That means many of these people have already attended these well-intentioned, acutely choreographed sessions to get them back on their feet. To help them rejoin the Mercedian community. To offer them another chance to leave The Thug Life.

"We're dealing with people who've been to the puppet show and seen the strings," said David Domico, the charismatic unit supervisor of the Merced Parole Unit of the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. A 2004 report put the national stats of parolees at 50 percent illiterate, 70 percent unemployed, 80 percent with drug or alcohol addictions and 20 percent homeless.

Still, "we're happy with it," he said of the PACT program.

Here's how it went Tuesday. Ex-cons signed sign-up sheets. Hugged one another and slapped their special handshakes, some all the way up the wrist. Absorbed the lessons they heard from men and women who've been where they once were or who want to keep them from going back.

Men and women offered free stuff -- food, showers, plastic-bagged suits and other clothes piled on the stage. Men and women whose jobs, and lives, are totally committed to keeping the people around the tables from frontsliding back into behaviors that put them behind bars in the first place.

But despite the throat-throbbing, eye-watering reactions to the speeches and the offers, it also means that an awful lot of these people have failed.

And failed again. And again. And again.

What does that tell us?

One: Merced County and PACT are going all out to try to help these dispossessed, to try the rehabilitation that the California penal system has long since scrapped in favor of discipline and control.

Two: That in spite of these extraordinary efforts, half or more of the people sitting at those tables will go back behind the walls, to emerge in a few years, eyes blinking at freedom and sunlight, and forced again to attend another PACT session.

If the county and PACT could be faulted, it wasn't evident at Gateway Community Church. Speaker after speaker moved an observer to swallow fast many times.

WAYNE DAVISON: "Prison is a crazy place. When you stepped out of the Gray Ghost (the tank-like bus with the black-diamond metal mesh that drops them off at prison), I saw fear -- fear of the unknown."

AUBREY NELSON of Love Inc. (in the Name of Christ): "Welcome home!" She offered free food, furniture, babies' formula and diapers, prayer, outreach and referral.

JOHN LONG, convict number 66830, 16 prisons, 26 years behind bars, drugs, alcohol, 211 (robbery): "You've got to be a man and stand up! You've got to be accountable! Do you want to take control of your life today?" He gave out his cell phone number, told 'em to call if they needed help any time, then dropped to his knees: "I beg you! Do it for yourself!"

DANIEL, a 30-year addict, six years in prison who's been "clean and sober 14 months." (People clapped every time anybody announced the duration of his or her sobriety.) Wearing a white T-shirt, at 6'5, 250 pounds, he recited poems about the struggle to go and stay straight. White rap. "I need a 12-Step for another 12-Step," he said. He knew several of the men in the room, used to "rip and run" with 'em while his kids found guns on his couch. Now he's walking the endless road to sobriety.

MONIKA GRASLEY, LifeLine Community Development: "You're not 'those people.' You're our brothers and sisters." She's persuaded a Motel 6 to let parolees shower on second and fourth Fridays: "It's not easy walking the streets."

WAYNA PRITCHETT: With two Ph.Ds, the most moving speaker of the morning. She talked about the families the people at the table had left behind when they became prisoners. Her son went to prison for "something stupid." Now she cares for his three little daughters. She told of being turned away on a visit after she spent $350 on groceries: "Lockdown. Go home." She mimicked prison yard lingo: Shot-caller. Cuz. Bro. Homie. She flashed a clear plastic purse she had to carry to get to visit. "I'm 'an inmate's mom,'" she cried. "You can begin healing today. You are now the shot-callers for the rest of your life and your family."

Tough act to follow. None did. The meeting broke up. Parolees crowded around service providers.

Earl, 38, wearing a black singlet and gray sweat pants, sunglasses perched behind his black hair, tatted all over, said it was "cool hearing the home boy" (Daniel) and that he'd gained a lot of information. He liked "that lady" who talked about the toll on families. He's been behind bars "a lot" -- drugs, assault. And now? "I'm gonna try. I've looked around and there's not a lot of work, not a lot of opportunities. If I can stay out that long, I expect to get a game plan."

Alex, 22, bilingual in Spanish and English, said he's got "a lot of opportunities to help me stay out, get me a job." He spent a decade inside for "fighting, guns." He hopes to enroll at Merced College.

Anita Wilson, 36, has been in prison or jail 38 times. "They're giving us a lot of chances to change our life." She just got her daughter back from foster care. She wants to go to college and major in Communications. She did time for forgery, possession, absconding, failing drug tests. "I've never been out more than 30 days," she said.

Marvin, 37, of Dos Palos, six times in prison for possession of drugs and an assault weapon. He's been out of Susanville a week. Served in the Army 1993-95 as an infantryman between the two Gulf wars. Now he's fighting one all by himself.

Robert Storey, 51, an Atwater High grad who's been a farmworker and employee at Foster Farms. "There's opportunity out there for us," he said, fingering a 4-inch-by-5-inch silver cross hanging down his black T-shirt. "The parole agents are giving us a chance." He was in "for multiple years -- sales, trafficking -- you name it and I did it." He just got out of Corcoran and wants to go to college and wind up counseling kids.

After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, the men and women at the tables gathered brochures, pocketed business cards, stepped outside for a smoke and hugs and handshakes peculiar to those they ran with.

Earl, the tattooed dude, was walking down Donna Drive when he accepted a ride. How many tats? "Too many." Read books? "Yeah, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon's 'Swan Song.' I read a lot." (Amazon calls that novel "a monster horror book, brimming over with stories, violence and terrific imagery -- God and the Devil, the whole works.")

Learn any skills inside? "Conniving and getting by." Any hope? "Not really. There's not much out there for a 38-year-old unskilled felon."

He asked to be dropped off at the 7-Eleven at Loughborough and R. He rolled the brochures and paperwork he got at the meeting into a scroll. Without looking at the car that was leaving, Earl pushed his back against the brick wall, slid down and sat.

He waited.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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