Iowa City re-entry program helps former inmates make the transition from prison to the outside world

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IOWA CITY — Craig Rockenbach has decided to better himself.

Rockenbach, 37, of Iowa City, is a habitual offender who most recently spent 27 months in prison after being sentenced in 2016 for theft in the second degree, a Class D felony.

When he was released in mid-July, Rockenbach said he didn’t “need to be doing that anymore.” So he sought the help of an Iowa City-based program aimed at assisting prisoners recently released from Iowa’s correctional system.

The goal of the Inside Out Re-entry program is to help former offenders make a positive re-entry back into the public.

“We help people find work, find a place to live and connect to community resources,” said Mike Cervantes, executive director of Inside Out.

Rockenbach was hired Aug. 26 as a housekeeper with the Hilton Garden Inn, the new hotel in downtown Iowa City. Since the hotel still is under construction, he has been helping clean it in preparation for its opening in October.

He said the job became a possibility through Inside Out, which offered resources and mentoring throughout the application process.

“It might be a small thing, but it’s programs like this that give people a second chance,” Rockenbach said.

The re-entry program was founded more than two years ago by Dorothy Whiston, a former pastor, and is located at the Spirit of Christ Church in Iowa City. Inside Out is a nonprofit organization and relies on funding from donors and local grants from the city of Iowa City, Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County and more.

Cervantes said that in the past year, about 120 people came through the program’s door. Of that, about 40 are active participants.

Cervantes became the executive director after volunteering at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale.

“As a longtime prison volunteer, one of the things I learned from people who were incarcerated was the step out of prison is really, really difficult,” he said.

With volunteers and peer mentors who have already gone through the program, former inmates participating in Inside Out can receive help with job and apartment applications, applications for aid or simply have someone to talk to.

Letisha Molina, a former inmate who went through the program after going to prison twice for drug-related charges, said the mentor she had while going through the Inside Out program was her “everything.”

Now in order to return the favor, Molina, 47, of Iowa City, is training to become a peer mentor, an Inside Out volunteer who helps participants.

“I just want to help men and women,” Molina said. “If I meet someone and they’ve had an addiction, I like to talk to them because I know that feeling, that craving, that want.”

In order for a participant to succeed in the program, Cervantes said the main requirement is a willingness to change.

“A person’s No. 1 challenge is being able to make a change. So many times if a person steps back and starts doing what they did before that got them in trouble and got them sent to prison or jail, the odds are, if they still go back to that, that’s going to happen again,” he said.

But at the same time, Cervantes and the Inside Out program are working to break stereotypes and make the lives of former inmates easier on the outside.

“We consider ourselves one community, because everyone makes mistakes in their lives. So we don’t separate in terms of ‘this is someone who’s been to prison, and therefore lower than someone who hasn’t been to prison,’” Cervantes said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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