Breaking the cycle: Comprehensive re-entry programs key to reintegrating offenders

Part 2 in a series looking at steps for formers prisoners who re-enter society

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa confines some 8,000 inmates in its prisons today.

And once out, a large proportion of them again will find themselves in trouble with the law.

The Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) estimates the state’s recidivism rate ­— the likelihood that a released offender will return to prison — sits around 30.3 percent.

Nearly three-quarters of all released inmates nationwide will be rearrested within five years of their release, and about six in 10 will be re-convicted, according to the Department of Justice.

A key to breaking that cycle is helping an inmate have a successful re-entry back into the community.

Melinda Lamb, Sixth Judicial District’s clinical services manager, said inmates are assigned a re-entry coordinator almost immediately upon entering prison. That coordinator works with inmates to develop a tailored plan, including mental health services, the sex offender treatment program or substance abuse help.

“The sooner you start, the more effective their transition and increased success when they get out,” Lamb said.

Once out of prison, Lamb said the DOC helps provide a wide array of services and programming, including housing assistance and educational services as well as therapy.

Challenges

Inmates face major challenges once released from prison, including finding housing and employment. Employers and landlords can sometimes be hesitant offering them a chance, experts said.

And research indicates that substance abuse can be a major pitfall and is often closely related to their difficulties with housing, employment and mental health.

Iowa Prison Industries, an arm of the Iowa DOC, is a work-training program that helps inmates develop skills while serving out their time in prison. The program went one step further this February, when the U.S. Department of Labor certified its apprenticeship program, said Al Reiter, associate warden for Iowa Prison Industries at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Inmates are able to work toward certification in 10 different areas, including welding, plumbing, electrician and metal fabrication.

Just as with any other apprenticeship program, there is a “classroom” component as well as work requirements. Reiter said the prison works with Kirkwood Community College to administer the tests, and inmates are able to gain anywhere between 4,000 to 6,000 work hours.

So far 10 offenders have received certification of some kind and another 57 are enrolled, he said. The prison has about 1,050 inmates at any time.

“This is another tool to put in their toolbox,” Reiter said. “They face a tough, uphill battle when trying to find a job.”

But it’s also important for the Iowa DOC to strike a balance between the services the state offers and helping offenders transition to community-based services, Lamb said.

“We want to initially help,” she said. “But we want to connect them to support groups and their broader community.”

Support

One community organization hoping to step in and provide offenders services is the Dream Center in Iowa City. The Dream Center’s main mission is to educate fathers and youth through its programming to build a stronger community.

The organization, founded in 2012 by Fred Newell, received a $15,000 grant from the American Baptist Church in the last quarter of 2014 to develop a comprehensive re-entry program to fill in gaps between the Department of Corrections and the community.

The program, which the Dream Center is pushing to begin this month, would offer housing application assistance, tutoring, life skills classes in areas from job readiness to cooking, and further resource referral for offenders who suffer from substance abuse or mental illness, said Carolyn Porter, program coordinator at the Dream Center.

“When these returning citizens are released from either prison or the Hope House, they’re faced with obstacles and barriers due to their backgrounds,” Porter said.

Porter added that the Dream Center wants to gives this population the resources it needs to be successful when returning from prison. It also plans to educate and advocate for this group, working to inform the community on the problems offenders face as well as lobbying the state government on issues such as voting rights.

Another main component of this new program is the Circle of Support, which planning committee member Jacques Robinson said will provide group accountability, help offenders reconnect with their families and really get reintegrated into their community.

The circles will be volunteer lead and provide offenders with 24/7 support, he said.

“The point is to provide resources and connect them to their wider community through mentorship so they don’t feel so isolated,” said Abby Jessen, another planning committee member.

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