POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. —The West Virginia Reentry Councils organization is now hosting meetings for the Mason County area to help support those coming out of incarceration and help them rejoin the community.
West Virginia Reentry Councils is a group established by the West Virginia Council of Churches with the goal of gathering resources and the community to help support those coming out of incarceration to become productive society members again and to help them avoid returning to jail and/or prison.
Jeremiah Nelson, Reentry Council Coordinator and Reentry Assistant West Virginia Council of Churches, said there are several levels of reentering society after being incarcerated.
“When a person gets out, a lot of times they end up having or lacking [a] social security card and birth certificate because it only takes a few days — that’s whether they’re coming out of jail or coming out of prison — someone goes in on a charge, and maybe they spend 30 or 60 days incarcerated, in that 30 or 60 days a person can lose their home, their apartment and a number of different things,” Nelson said.
Nelson said when losing something like a person’s home or vehicle, that person generally loses everything else from social security card to legal identification and more. Without these documents he says it is difficult to gain employment or housing, making it “almost impossible to get yourself back on your feet.”
These are things the Reentry Council tries to help with, Nelson said.
“Most people don’t realize that most people that end up recidivising or going back into incarceration is not because of a new charge,” Nelson said. “It’s generally things like technical violations that can hamper them. That can be from the inability to pay a $40 parole fee to paying some form of their restitution or not just that, maybe they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any number of different situations.”
West Virginia has the fourth lowest recidivism rate at 26.8%, with a national average of 43.3% according to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security website.
The Reentry Council started meetings in Point Pleasant for Mason County and the surrounding area in October 2020, but due to COVID-19, the meetings have all been via Zoom. Nelson said because of this the group is small, but still helpful.
“We still have resources there that we can connect people to and one of the things that I tell people when I talk to them that are in that community, especially when they call me asking for resources to help somebody, I encourage them to attend the council,” Nelson said. “When people get on there, they’re always like, ‘man, what a great resource network.’”
Nelson said the meetings are open to anyone who has previously been incarcerated, those who want to offer support and community resources groups.
“We have people from Social Security Administration, Jobs and Hope, West Virginia Division of Rehab, just all kinds of communities of education. You’ve got people from WVU, from Marshall, Marshall Health, you just have all these different community partners that come together to help those reentering society,” Nelson said.
According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy’s website, March 15, 2021 had the lowest prison population of the state since 2003 with 3,831 people incarcerated. The website also shows that while the number is still high at 6,135 people in regional jails (maximum capacity 4,265) the number has decreased 21%.
The Council has been spreading the word through online sources, fliers and reaching out to regional jails and the prisons to help those coming out to learn where to go next, Nelson said. The Council currently has 20 different areas to meet across the state.
Nelson currently covers the southern part of the state to coordinate meetings and said he is familiar with the difficulty people have in getting back into society.
“I’m a formerly incarcerated individual. I spent a little over two years in federal prison and another five years on federal probation,” Nelson said. “I’m very familiar with all the hoops and hurdles that you have to jump through upon reentering society. It also gives a little bit of, I guess, weight to things that I tell people or when I’m sharing with them about the things that I faced coming out, especially being a reentry assistant and connecting with people.”
Nelson said one issue people face coming out of incarceration is an overwhelming amount of decisions to be make.
“You know, as a person, you and I, we make about 30,000 decisions a day,” Nelson said. As far as what we’re going to eat, where we’re going to go and we’re going to do it any number of different things, versus a person who was incarceration and has everything decided for them, they make about 100 decisions a day. So, that person comes out, it can be very overwhelming at time. And you know, a lot of times we expect people just to be able to pick up things and go from there and sometimes it can be very difficult.”
Nelson said there are 851 collateral consequences to having a criminal record and nearly 2,000 federal consequences. He said these things can set people up for failure at reentering society as a productive citizen.
“What has happened is people were not given a second chance, they were given a limited chance,” Nelson said. “And when you set people up for failure, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. We live in the most overly incarcerated country in the world. There has to be some reform in there somewhere. I deal with people every day, there are very, very, very few of them that just really want to go back to incarceration, most of them is because we have failed them as a society as far as to helping them or giving them a pathway to success.”
Nelson said he believes it’s mostly a “lack of community awareness of what’s going on or what happens when someone returns” and he hopes that can be changed.
Reentry council meetings usually entail some introductions, an organization sharing its purpose and an overall community connection.
To join a reentry meeting, there are currently sign-ups on the website, wvreentry.org, and a link will be sent prior to the meeting. Meetings are the first Friday of every month at 3 p.m.
© 2021 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Brittany Hively is a staff writer with Ohio Valley Publishing. Reach her at (740) 444-4303 ext 2555.