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Coming home is harder than you think

Workshop by Brattleboro Community Justice Center shows obstacles facing ex-offenders

BRATTLEBORO—For ex-offenders released from prison, their first day breathing free air is one of the best days. It can also be one of the hardest.

The Brattleboro Community Justice Center hopes community members will gain insight into the obstacles thwarting ex-offenders’ successful reintegration into society at a workshop at American Legion Post 5 on Linden Street.

The free Oct. 28 workshop will run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., and simulates four weeks in a new parolee’s life. Participants visit different stations representing actions parolees must take to meet their parole requirements like obtaining housing, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or securing a job.

Attendees receive a travel voucher, money and a list of what they must accomplish. “Jail time” awaits participants failing to complete required tasks.

Julie Etter, an AmeriCorps/VISA volunteer with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, says participants learn “how impossible it is, even when you try so hard, to do the right thing.”

A participant from a previous workshop told Etter, “You taught me something I didn’t know I had to learn.”

Former offenders who receive re-entry support are less likely to re-offend, says Larry Hames, the center’s executive director.

According to Hames, by giving parolees the skills to thrive in their communities, restorative justice programs help create safer communities.

Also, restorative justice costs less than prison. According to Etter, the justice center will help six former offenders reintegrate for the $48,000 annual cost of imprisoning one person.

The workshop takes place a few times a year around the state, says Etter, but has not run in downtown Brattleboro for a while. She says the Justice Center hopes between 40 and 50 people will attend.

Etter hopes participants will discover how to “accept folks for the mistakes they’ve made.”

Darah Kehnemuyi of Dummerston participated in a 2007 workshop.

Kehnemuyi, an attorney, has 30 years experience with the justice system, including five years with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center. He serves on a reparative justice panel and two Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) a re-entry program providing social and emotional support for parolees.

“Individuals who work with COSAs have little to no social networks when leaving prison, so having connections to folks in the community allows them to better access jobs and housing,” explains Etter.

“Re-entry’s a big problem,” Kehnemuyi says.

He feels restorative justice benefits everyone, noting that such programs need more funding and volunteers.

He believes if more parolees receive help after release, they can better navigate common obstacles like housing, transportation and finding work that lead many parolees back to prison.

Kehnemuyi says parolees face the stigma of their having done jail time and their lack of skills to take responsibility for themselves — which landed them in jail in the first place.

Consequently, many end up back in jail.

In his opinion, about 5-10 percent of people in the court system are dangerous and deserve prison. Most of the rest need help and made “stupid decisions in stressful circumstances,” due to drugs, alcohol or mental health issues.

Not that the community should take responsibility for everyone, Kehnemuyi says. He just thinks the community doesn’t need to make the situation harder.

“The biggest hurdle for prisoners is being labeled as ‘socially inferior.’ They carry that with them,” he says.

This label corrodes their self-confidence adding to any previous issues.

Kehnemuyi thinks anyone contemplating volunteering with the prison system should attend the workshop.

The Madison-area Urban Ministry, a social justice organization in Wisconsin, designed the re-entry simulation workshop. According to its website, www.emum.org, the interfaith coalition started as an experiment in the 1970s as a collaboration between the United Church of Christ, Church Women United, and a neighborhood association.

According to Etter, the justice center has served eight ex-offenders through its re-entry program and COSA, and 11 ex-offenders through programs overall.

“Come with an open mind. [The workshop] is as close as you’re going to get to the real thing before choosing to volunteer,” Kehnemuyi said.

Contact Etter at 802-251-8143 or jetter@brattleborocjc.org for more information or to register for the workshop.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #73 (Wednesday, October 27, 2010).

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