Easing the transition: Missoula partners explore the challenges of leaving prison

Participants in Thursday’s exercise hosted by Missoula Partners for Reintegration explored the challenges prisoners face when attempting to settle into life at home, from securing work and housing to gaining the proper identification. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Every few months, Pete Pettersen enters prison to visit with inmates in a ministry aimed at raising spirits. Those on the inside are often filled with trepidation and doubt about returning to life back home, wherever that may be.

While those fears are often foreign to Pettersen, he got a small taste of the reintegration process on Thursday in an exercise held by Montana Probation and Parole and Partners for Reintegration.

Like many, he found the experience to be somewhat troubling.

“I go into prison quite often, every three months, and I talk to people and this is a very frustrating thing they’ve heard about from other people,” Pettersen said. “They’ve never gone through it themselves, but they’re going to go through all of this, and I wanted a little experience about it.”

Pettersen joined around 50 other community members from organizations across Missoula at Thursday’s event, which saw participants attempt to navigate the cumbersome process of reentering the community after prison in a short period of time.

With no money, no identification, no transportation and no place to live, the challenges of reintegrating into the community proved to be surprisingly complex and frustrating. Some ended up back in jail on minor violations. Others found themselves out of money.

Many found themselves in a corner of the room designated as the homeless shelter.

“We often think about this as a Department of Corrections issue, but it’s a community issue as well,” said Amy Chesebro, program manager for the jail diversion program in Missoula. “If individuals are better able to understand the actual challenges these people are confronted with when they leave prison, then people are going to start caring a little more.”

According to Partners for Reintegration, roughly 97 percent of Montana prisoners will return to the community. While their crime is theirs to bear, how successfully they reintegrate into the community carries wider social costs and consequences.

Chesebro said recidivism has a substantial financial impact on the state’s economy. It costs the state more than $33,000 a year to house an inmate versus $1,600 to supervise them on probation.

“Housing in Missoula is a particularly large challenge,” said Chesebro. “It’s hard for anyone to find safe, affordable and sustainable housing here, and when you add a felony it’s nearly impossible. The challenges can be pretty overwhelming, and most of the systems here in Missoula tend to function in silos.”

Members of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department and local jail quiz volunteers acting as ex-prisoners during Thursday’s reintegration exercise. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Thursday’s event was intended to break down those silos and reduce the rate of recidivism. As it stands, roughly 43 percent of Montana prisoners recidivate. Others end up homeless or on the streets, which carries its own consequences.

On Monday, a homeless man died of exposure in Missoula.

“Here in Missoula, we just lost an individual that was experiencing homelessness to hypothermia, and that just illustrates the challenge of finding housing,” said Chesebro. “Especially when you’re experiencing substance abuse, mental health – anything like that.”

Katie Weston, a probation and parole officer based in Billings, has led the exercise in communities across the state. The drill runs like a Monopoly game, with pretend felons dealing with fake money and fake consequences.

Those who ended up back in jail did so with laughter. Those sequestered to the homeless shelter were fully clothed with warm hats and gloves. Those told to start over due to a paperwork error simply walked to another table.

In the real world, each act carries a heavier toll.

“There’s a lot of expectations on them to achieve a lot of tasks, and these people are individuals who have been in an institution for a long time – at least sometimes – and they’ve been told what to do for a long time,” said Weston. “Being left to their own devices to accomplish these tasks can be difficult.”

Over the past two years, Partners for Reintegration has lobbied for subtle changes it believes would help inmates make an easier transition to their home community. In 2015, the organization lobbied the city of Missoula to remove the “felony check box” on municipal job applications.

During the last Legislature, it also testified on two bills aimed at reentry. One would provide housing vouchers for three months and establish a risk mitigation fund. The other would provide peer support certification.

Both bills passed and were signed into law. They represent small steps toward changing a system that disfavors those who served time in prison.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving someone a chance,” said Weston. “As community organizations, we can communicate better, and when we get everyone in one room, it makes it easier for us to talk about it. In a simulation like this where they see and experience some of the problems and see what the challenges are, it’s a little easier to start breaking down those silos.”