Each year since the program’s inception, nearly one thousand youths and adults enter the inner sanctum of the Passaic County Jail to get a closer look and a taste of what the consequences are of making poor decisions.
The Reality Check program is designed, not so much as a “scared straight” approach, but a face-to-face experience with prisoners who “keep it real” in their presentation about how their lives and the lives of their loved ones have drastically changed as a result of bad decision-making.
After a tour through areas of the facility, which includes inmate housing areas, and a look at what inmates eat, how they are permitted to visit, and what items of contraband are confiscated, the visiting group is led to an area where they are directly addressed by a panel of carefully selected inmates.
For many, the tour itself leaves a lasting impression as visitors experience first-hand the rattling sounds of slamming steel gates and doors, the din and odors of community living, the jeers and glares of those behind dismal gray bars.
The panel is comprised of inmates who volunteer to share their story. Though many request a slot on the team, most are not chosen.
The program director looks for men and women with a variety and balance of life experiences and criminal charges; those that would be most relatable to our youth.
On the panel are inmates whose charges range from drug offenses, robbery and prostitution to gang-related crimes and felonies. They come from good homes and stable families, some well-educated and formerly employed in legitimate businesses; others from broken and poverty-stricken homes, have little education, suffered various types of abuse throughout their lives, are enslaved to their dependencies, and have become career criminals.
The program has been highly effective, becoming a monthly requirement for Passaic County youth sentenced to probation. The inmates on the panel are sincere in their presentations and take this program very seriously. They believe that since they were part of the problem, they have dedicated themselves to becoming part of the solution. Holding nothing back, these prisoners almost plead with our youth not to make the same mistakes they did for the sake of peer acceptance or a lucrative lifestyle.
The inmates let the audience know that the pattern of their decision-making and criminal behavior have far-reaching consequences that have altered, not only their immediate lack of freedom, but their hopes of a bright future. The panel leaves participants with much to think about when they walk out the doors of the jail into a world where freedom, liberty, and all the little things in life that are so often taken for granted, are enjoyed.