.Marin County Jail’s new program aims to reduce recidivism

The young woman felt compelled to steal from Rite Aid, Safeway and other stores, partly because she knew selling the merchandise would help provide for her two sons.

It’s hard to say whether Deja Munson, 25, possesses much talent for thievery. While admitting to stealing regularly, she also seems to get caught frequently enough, spending almost four of the last seven years behind bars at various correctional facilities, including a 22-month stint at the women’s state prison in Chowchilla.

Munson, a Vallejo resident, currently lives in the Marin County Jail. A January arrest for stealing from a CVS store in San Rafael also triggered a parole violation. Taking a plea deal, she received a three-month sentence for both offenses.

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On April 16, the young mom will leave her cell and rejoin life with her two sons, ages 2 and 7. Determined never to be locked up again, Munson believes she can stay on the straight and narrow this time.

“I’ve just been so stuck on the easy route,” Munson said. “But I want more. I want so bad to be just, you know, a regular citizen doing the right thing, living the right way, working hard for it.”

Describing herself as impulsive and prone to self-sabotage, Munson knows she has a tough road to navigate when she gets released. Resisting the temptation to steal has proven too daunting in the past. Whether she succeeds will depend on her commitment to understanding her behaviors and learning problem-solving skills.

Munson, who is bright and enthusiastic, says she can do it. I believe her.

Last week, I met Munson twice at the jail. The first occasion took place when the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, invited the media to the launch of the Family Reunification Program. Munson, the first participant, had a “contact” visit with her children and mother, allowing her to hug them after three months of separation.

Before the reunification program, a wall with a glass window stood between an incarcerated person and their loved ones during visits. Now, those who qualify for the program see and touch their family in a cheery, newly remodeled room, replete with a comfortable sofa, chairs and plenty of toys for the kids.

Dressed in a brown uniform, Munson entered the room, hugging and kissing her boys. She greeted her mother, Sumatra McGilbery, affectionately.

“He’s getting so tall, Mom,” Munson said of her 7-year-old son. “I miss you.”

McGilbery, seated next to me on the sofa, watched her daughter playing with the children on the floor. Softly, the grandmother began to cry, saying that her daughter has been incarcerated for too much of the children’s lives.

Indeed, Munson missed four of her eldest son’s seven birthdays. The youngest child was born while Munson was in state prison. Two days later, McGilbery brought the infant into her home.

McGilbery has devoted years to raising her grandchildren, taking them in each time her daughter has landed in a cell. She hopes that during these family visits, Munson will realize what “she’s been missing out on and won’t leave them again.”

That is the primary purpose of the Family Reunification Program. Although Sheriff Jamie Scardina didn’t attend the inaugural family contact visit, the program is part of his initiative to reduce recidivism, according to Deputy Phil Marsh, a jail reentry team member.

Visitation helps families maintain meaningful relationships. In addition to decreasing the reoffense rate, plenty of research shows that these visits are invaluable to the well-being of an incarcerated person and their kids in several ways, including improved mental health.

“Where the visitation is of a high quality, it is associated with positive outcomes for children,” concluded a Maryland Law Review article, “Prisoners of Fate: The Challenges of Creating Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents.”

Family reunification is one of many programs offered by the jail’s reentry team, which consists of four people. Marsh said they work with other county agencies and nonprofits to provide classes, all designed to ease an incarcerated individual’s transition into the community after being released.

Bay Area Community Resources, a nonprofit, leads in-custody classes on parenting, anger management, changing behavior, mindfulness and more. Once released, a person has the opportunity to continue with programs on the outside, according to Pattie Williams, a manager with the organization.

Munson credits the programs, and particularly Williams, for the “mind-blowing, life-changing” difference in her outlook. During past incarcerations, she couldn’t get into these types of classes due to long waiting lists. But she had no such problems at the Marin County Jail.

“There are so many skills that I’ve learned, especially with responding to anger,” Munson said. “Active listening is a big thing for me because I tend to talk, instead of listening to understand the other person’s point of view. Just proper communication, you know, stopping and thinking.”

Next week, Munson will move in with her father. Although she won’t live with her children, she will begin co-parenting them. Munson’s mother, McGilbery, wants her daughter to acclimate to life outside of jail before she begins caring for the boys full-time.

“She needs time to stabilize,” McGilbery said. “Deja’s a good mom. I know she loves them. They’re her children.”

I visited Munson again at the jail, allowing me to meet with her one-on-one. She’s clear on the fact that she committed crimes for complicated reasons, and it’s going to take all the grit she can muster to avoid her previous behaviors.

Her goals are simple: a job, spending quality time with her sons and maybe returning to school. Munson is grateful that her family has stood by her and knows she has hurt them.

Even though she’s getting out soon, Munson spoke wistfully of the time that she has missed with her children, saying she constantly wonders what they smell like. The expression on her youngest son’s face during their contact visit tugged at her heart.

“He kind of was like looking at me like, ‘I know who you are. But where [have] you been at?’” Munson said.

Fortunately, Munson is young. She has plenty of time to build bridges and strong bonds with her family. With their support and her drive, Munson is well on her way.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

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