Fresh Start Ministries, by a few different names, has been working for more than 40 years to help inmates of all faiths who are incarcerated in the Linn County Jail. But in recent years, Fresh Start’s focus has expanded to address the needs of men and women after their release.
Fresh Start’s Reintegration Initiative for Safety and Empowerment, or RISE program, created in 2015, has helped 1,049 people navigate the world outside of jail. From its space in Cedar Rapids’ Mission of Hope, Fresh Start/RISE has provided free bus passes, guidance on finding a job or a place to live and information on educational opportunities and other services. More than two-dozen volunteer “navigators” and a part-time paid coordinator administer RISE assistance.
RISE has been toiling largely under the local radar, and on a shoestring budget. Of Fresh Start’s overall $104,000 yearly budget, raised entirely through donations, RISE spends about $24,000 annually. Faced with a growing pool of people seeking help, RISE hopes to expand its physical presence and services. Housing help, for example, is one area RISE volunteers contend they could do more with additional dollars. Support for inmates’ families is another growing focus.
“It’s grown so much. We’re bursting at the seams right now. We don’t have enough space,” said Jeff Scherrman, secretary on the Fresh Start board and president of Acme Graphics in Cedar Rapids. He said Fresh Start also has plans to add a chaplain who will serve the juvenile detention center, an effort that also will take additional resources.
“We’ve been around since the ’70s. But people just didn’t understand what’s all being done for the inmates. It pays off,” Scherrman said.
They’re programs worthy of more attention and community support. So we’re shining a spotlight on the effort just as Fresh Start/RISE is scheduled to hold its second annual fundraising benefit concert at 6 p.m. May 3 at Cedar Hills Community Church.
“I think it’s making a tremendous difference,” said Sister Emily Devine, a Fresh Start board member. “When you look at the fundraiser, what we really need it for is building those individuals to be stronger and better and more involved in the community.”
Raising money to help jail inmates can be a challenge. But communities pay, one way or another.
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A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that, over the past three decades, state and local spending on corrections have increased three times faster than spending on elementary and secondary education. And between 1990 and 2013, corrections spending rose 89 percent compared to largely flat investments in higher education.
In Iowa, education spending dwarfs corrections spending, but corrections is growing much faster. Between 1980 and 2013, overall PK-12 education spending grew by 45 percent while state and local corrections spending jumped 163 percent, according to the DOE. Between 1990 and 2013, spending on higher education declined by 18 percent as corrections spending rose 86 percent.
The number of adults incarcerated in Iowa rose 291 percent between 1980 and 2013, compared to just a 13 percent growth in the overall adult population, according to the study.
Inmates pay $60 daily while housed in the Linn County Jail, adding up to $3.7 million annually, a total that does not cover the full cost of incarceration, nor does it take into account the cost of lost jobs, family challenges or other community costs.
Fresh Start/RISE spends a total of $47.90 per inmate, on average, to help them find a different path.
“We do see a benefit, in the RISE program specifically,” said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. “Although we’re in the business to house inmates, our ultimate goal would be to have no inmates to house. The RISE program does a good job of letting folks know what their options are. We’ve got a good group of volunteers.
“Any time we can find ways to keep people out of that revolving door, it’s definitely a good thing,” Gardner said.
Beyond help with immediate needs, such as bus passes, RISE steers former inmates into Circles of Support, mentoring groups housed across the city in churches and other settings. In each circle, four to six volunteer mentors help RISE clients stay on track, give advice and even provide employment networks.
Scherrman has hired RISE clients at Acme Graphics.
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“They’re very good, hard workers. They appreciate an opportunity,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling.”
At a moment marked by scarce public funds and state budget cuts, groups such as Fresh Start/RISE are doing heavy lifting with lightweight resources. They need our attention, and support.
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