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Released inmates find an oasis

Michael McMordie steps out of the Metropolitan Detention Center’s transport van at about 2:30 a.m. Thursday after being released from jail. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

At 2:30 a.m. Thursday, a nondescript van carrying 12 recently released jail inmates pulled into the gated area outside the public safety building in Downtown Albuquerque.

Some of the inmates had rides waiting for them and quickly left.

About 10 went inside Bernalillo County’s new Resource Re-Entry Center, where a technician from the Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment detox center, or MATS, greeted them with coffee, crackers and sandwiches. The men or women inmates were told they could sleep the rest of the night at the center, where in the morning they could meet with a caseworker who could help them organize their future court appearances and obligations.

Most people quietly left after a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee. Some charged their cellular phones or got on a computer.

Joe Morales, 47, was one of two released inmates who planned to stay the night. At about 4 a.m., he sat and drank coffee and watched crime dramas on a television.

It’s a vastly different scenario than before the center opened.

Joe Morales watches television at the Resource Re-Entry Center. Morales was released at 2:30 a.m. and decided to stay at the center overnight and wait to report to his probation officer. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Katrina Hotrum-Lopez

As he sipped coffee, Morales recalled a prior time when he was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center in the summer, then was released in the middle of Downtown in the winter without warm clothes.

Morales is homeless and most recently had been in jail on an alleged probation violation. He had to meet with his probation officer first thing Thursday morning and had been planning to roam the streets until the office opened.

“I was gonna go see what’s up (on the streets), but I know what’s up,” he said, referring to looking for and using methamphetamine.

“Then you can’t go report” to probation, he said. “You already screwed up. So what are you going to do? Keep screwing up until they bring you in.”

But the center offered him a respite until the probation office opened.

A place to go

Paul Orgass pets Chance, a county employee’s pet, at the Bernalillo County Resource Re-Entry Center. Orgass is in a substance abuse treatment program he learned about after his release from jail last month. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The re-entry center, which opened in mid-June, is the first facility of its kind in the state, county officials said. In the past, when inmates were released from the Metropolitan Detention Center, located about 15 miles west of Albuquerque, they either had someone pick them up from there or were bused and dropped off Downtown at the intersection of Fourth and Roma at all hours of the day and night.

Now, the released inmates have a place to go. The center is open 24 hours and always has coffee and food available.

Joseph Armenta, right, signs for a bicycle from George Montoya, left, of the Community Bike Recycling Program. Russell Urban, center, an outreach worker for the La Plazita Institute, connected Armenta to the program. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

During the day, they can speak with staff about other services that are available to them, said Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, the director of the county’s Department of Behavioral Health. Caseworkers can help them navigate the local legal system.

Paul Sena puts mustard on a sandwich at Bernalillo County’s Resource Re-Entry Center. Sena was released at about 2:30 a.m. on Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

On Thursday, the center was providing inmates with information about a GED program at Central New Mexico Community College and directions to Pretrial Services, the Good Shepherd Center’s clothing room and places where free meals are offered.

Since its opening, about half of all the inmates who have been released have taken advantage of at least the basic services there, Hotrum-Lopez said. Many come in for a coffee and a sandwich, or to have a safe place to stay while they wait for a ride. Others have tried to get help with their addiction.

Paul Orgass, a 19-year-old from Belen, was one such former inmate. He is in a monthslong treatment program after finding out at the resource center that space was available at a short-term detox facility.

Orgass said people underestimate how difficult it can be after being released from jail.

He has made the 10-mile walk down N.M. 314 back to Belen after being released from the Valencia County Detention Center in Los Lunas.

And when he was arrested in early August at an Albuquerque motel on a stolen automobile charge, he wasn’t wearing a shirt and had to get one from the jail. He was wearing a stained, old T-shirt when he was released after two nights.

“It was a nasty, sweaty – it was a really gross shirt,” he said. “It was really embarrassing.”

At the re-entry center, Orgass received a voucher to purchase clothes at a local thrift shop.

He said it’s easy for newly released inmates to fall back into the same lifestyle that landed them in jail. The only people he knows in the city are “homies that do drugs,” and he said his mother had hung up on him when he tried calling her.

After his most recent arrest, Orgass went into the center to eat some food and started talking to a woman who worked there.

“I was sitting here, and I kind of broke down,” he said.

In an interview with the Journal two weeks after his release from jail, he said he learned from the center that a place was available at the MATS detox center in southeast Albuquerque. He took advantage of that program and is now in a longer term drug-treatment program.

Orgass grew up in the Oregon foster care system before he and his siblings were adopted by a family in Tijeras. His adoptive father died when he was 12, and Orgass started getting into trouble, eventually landing at MDC.

He said he’s motivated to get and stay sober, and he credited the help he was offered at the re-entry center.

“If you can swallow your pride, it works,” he said. “It really does.”

Always staffed

In addition to sandwiches and coffee, the center has stations where people can charge their cellphones. Comfortable and colorful chairs are scattered about in front of a large television. And private conference rooms are available where former inmates can meet with caseworkers about pending legal requirements, Hotrum-Lopez said.

The center has a skeleton staff overnight, but someone from the county, University of New Mexico or another service provider is at the center around the clock because the jail releases inmates at all hours of the day. The center also has a few cots that are rolled out at night if people don’t have a place to go.

“It’s really a stop where people don’t have to manage everything all on their own,” Hotrum-Lopez said. “We work on stabilizing people coming in and out of jail.”

It cost about $800,000 to convert a part of the county’s Public Safety building at Fourth and Roma NW into the re-entry center. Its annual operating budget is about $1 million per year, according to county documents.

The building also houses Pretrial Services, which many newly released inmates have to report to.

The re-entry center is funded using a gross receipts tax that was enacted in 2015 to fund more mental health services. The tax is one-eighth of 1 percent on most goods and services.

In a roughly two-month period this summer, 3,458 people were released from jail there. Of those, 1,357 had a cup of coffee, 1,634 ate food, 104 took a hygiene pack, 925 used the telephone, 46 used a computer and 520 waited in the center’s lounge for a ride, said Bill Mosteller, the project coordinator at the center.

Joseph Armenta, 54, was one of the former inmates who went through the re-entry center.

“You get released from jail at 2 o’clock in the morning … that’s gonna put you right back in jail,” he said, suggesting that someone wandering in the middle of the night might draw the attention of the police. “At 2 o’clock in the morning, depending on what you’re wearing, what you look like, you could end back in jail.”

When he was released from jail in early August, Armenta went into the center for a cup of coffee. He ended up getting in touch with La Plazita Institute.

He was able to get a 30-day bus pass, a pair of eyeglasses and a bicycle, which will help him get around the city.

“They should have done this a long time ago,” he said. “If you are willing to help yourself, this is the place.”

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