Life as an ex-con: Public gets taste of harsh reality at Morris sheriff’s simulation

People role-playing at the STAR simulation are returned to jail for violating terms of their release or not being able to pay fines. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff's Office
People role-playing at the STAR simulation are returned to jail for violating terms of their release or not being able to pay fines. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff's Office
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From the Morris County Sheriff’s Office:

By Peggy Wright

Morris County service providers, probation and police officers and high school students assumed the roles of former jail inmates Friday to experience the biases, destitution, social and emotional challenges some inmates have upon discharge back into the community.

The re-entry simulation held at the Morris County Public Safety Academy in Parsippany was the first public showcasing of the Successful Transition and Re-Entry (STAR) program started in October as a collaboration between Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon and the county Office of Temporary Assistance within the Department of Human Services.

Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon at the STAR re-entry simulation on March 15, 2019. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff's Office
Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon at the STAR re-entry simulation on March 15, 2019. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff’s Office

Both Sheriff Gannon and Morris County Freeholder Heather Darling noted in opening program remarks that the recidivism rate of individuals incarcerated at the Morris County Correctional Facility is about 48 percent – or 48 percent of the same individuals are rearrested and returned to jail.

The rate won’t drop without meaningful programs offered to inmates, Sheriff Gannon said.

“This is a holistic approach to a population that needs our support,” he said.

The event, attended by more than 100 people, was organized by STAR case managers Melissa Maney and Sierra McEniry, whose office is based at the Morris County Correctional Facility.

Inmates voluntarily sign up for STAR, where they are assisted, before and after discharge, with access to medical and substance abuse recovery services, housing, Temporary Aid To Needy Families, Medicaid, SNAP, jobs, identification documents, and even Vivitrol injections to help prevent relapses to alcohol or drug dependencies.

“There’s no cookie-cutter method. We’re meeting everyone where they’re at,” McEniry said.

There are 83 current and former inmates in the STAR program in Morris County.

The simulation was facilitated by Kimberlynn Reeves of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, an expert on re-entry program who has worked with the New Jersey State Parole Board on conducting four of the five re-entry simulations the Parole Board has held.

“We look to hold re-entry simulations in jurisdictions like Morris County that are very progressive and engaged,” said Parole Board administrative analyst Sherry Sandler. “We’re all re-entry stakeholders as citizens and residents of the state.”

STAR client Michael Lester, who spent several months in the Morris County Correctional Facility for his third drunken driving offense, shared a bit of his story with the crowd. He said his first DWI occurred 10 years ago after his wife died and he got another DWI charge for riding an electric bicycle while intoxicated.

Lester said he saw participants laughing and enjoying the simulation but his incarceration wasn’t a joke.

“In real life, when you go to jail, you’re not laughing,” he said. He said Maney and McEniry, the STAR caseworkers, helped him receive Vivitrol, set up dental and medical appointments, and find an apartment.

“They’re very responsive. As a matter of fact, they’re proactive. Good energy,” Lester said.

STAR case managers Sierra McEniry and Melissa Maney at their STAR office at the Morris County Correctional Facility. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff's Office
STAR case managers Sierra McEniry and Melissa Maney at their STAR office at the Morris County Correctional Facility. Photo by Peggy Wright, Morris County Sheriff’s Office

Reeves took charge of running the simulation in which participants were given “life cards” that gave them a new identity, details of their crimes and sentences, and a schedule of obligations they had to fulfill over a four-week period, including paying probation fees, restitution to victims, undergoing urinalysis, and paying for food, rent and utilities.

Role players moved between stations manned by volunteers posing as service and medical providers, landlords, court officials, pawn shop owners, and other people a former inmate may encounter. Mirroring real life, some volunteers treated the inmate role-players rudely while others were sympathetic or lenient.

Role-players at the various stations would select cards that dictated their next step, such as appearing before a judge for failing a drug test or being forced to pay rent on a room in full or face eviction.

Morris County Sheriff’s Officers played roles too at the simulation, escorting people away from stations to “jail” in a back corner of the room for infractions that included failure to pay a probation fine or speaking disrespectfully to a judge.

By the time role players had reached the fourth week of trying to meet obligations, most were in jail – a reflection, Reeves said, of how easily a former inmate can return to jail without assistance.

“I think it’s a cool experience,” said Morris Hills High School senior Francis Babe. His background was as “Wesley,” who spent 10 years in federal prison for bank robbery.

Rewaida Muheisen, who works for the Morris County Office of Temporary Assistance, said the simulation gave her a glimpse of how overwhelming life may be like for a former inmate.

“We see clients all day long and now we can see the effects of what we ask of them,” Muheisen said.

Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp also attended the simulation, saying in opening remarks that he admires Sheriff Gannon’s initiatives to curb crime and reduce drug dependency.

“I’ve never seen innovative efforts before like Sheriff Gannon has done for Morris County,” Prosecutor Knapp said.

Peggy Wright is spokesperson for the Morris County Sheriff’s Office.

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