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Centers seek to help former prisoners reintegrate

Even with a supportive family waiting for him at home, the waning days of Carlos Merced's federal prison term were nerve wracking.

Even with a supportive family waiting for him at home, the waning days of Carlos Merced's federal prison term were nerve wracking.

"Where was I going to work? Was I going to be able to stay on the straight and narrow, or would I be back here?" the former inmate remembers thinking at the time.

It was eight years ago this month that Merced's mother and younger brother drove from Camden to Lewisburg Federal Prison in Pennsylvania, where he had served 41/2 years. They took him to a halfway house in Philadelphia.

Now Merced, 34, who has stayed out of trouble since and lives in Camden's Fairview section, is one of dozens of trained volunteers who will greet men and women coming out of jail at centers set up by Camden Churches Organized for People in partnership with Cooper University Hospital's Urban Health Institute, Project H.O.P.E., Volunteers of America, and the state's parole board.

"We want to welcome them and make sure they know they're not just a number anymore," Merced said.

Prisoner reentry initiatives are numerous in Camden, which has a crime rate five times the national average and one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. CCOP's initiative reaches out to inmates through the parole board, while they are still in prison. It aims to provide a one-stop shop for resources available in the city. A major focus is enrollment in Medicaid and Medicare, now available to the formerly incarcerated under the Affordable Care Act.

The first monthly event is scheduled for Wednesday at Joe's Place across from Sacred Heart Parish at 11:30 a.m. and is open to any former inmate.

Men and women will be able to meet with volunteers and enrollment specialists and join group discussions about their problems. They will be able to enroll in Medicaid and schedule a free health screening (in some cases the same day) at Project H.O.P.E. or through Cooper University Hospital's Urban Health Institute.

"We see individuals that come out with hypertension, diabetes, mental-health disorders, anxiety, depression, for the most part," said Patricia DeShields, executive director of Project H.O.P.E., a nonprofit that provides health care, counseling, and patient services to people who are homeless or formerly incarcerated.

DeShields said the partnership can serve as a road map of all the city's services and as a "welcoming center."

"People come out of the system . . . with some anxieties because they can't just walk back into that place in time that they left," she said, "and they struggle to get an appointment with providers, struggle to get all their paperwork. It's like a laundry list of things to do and places to go and nobody to be a navigator."

Merced, of Camden Churches Organized for People, said attendees would be encouraged to get involved in advocacy work related to reentry, including the campaign to "ban the box," an initiative aimed at removing the criminal history section from the early part of job application.

Merced said attitudes developed in prison can often made things worse. "There are people who learn their lesson and want to do right, but there are people in there who take it as, this is what I do, this is my life, this is what I was born to be," he said.

He gives much credit to the family and friends who helped him get a job within days of his release from prison.

"I was blessed, but a lot of people coming out really don't have anybody," he said. "It's going to be a fight sometimes because you're not making enough money to support yourself, and you say, 'Wow, the only way I'm going to be able to make it is to get back out on the streets.' I want them to know they don't have to do that again."