"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."