CORALVILLE, Iowa (CBS 2/ FOX 28) — The InsideOut Re-entry program hosted its inaugural parolee simulation on Wednesday at the Kirkwood Regional Center.
Over 50 volunteers participated in the simulation. City officials, business owners, landlords and residents role-played what it would be like to live a month in the life of someone recently released from incarceration.
“Essentially, it was a frustrating process,” said Councilmember Jim Sayre.
In the simulation, Sayre said he couldn’t believe one moment he was waiting in line to get an ID, to living in a halfway house after not paying rent, and finally ending up back in jail for not having the resources he needed to make frequent visits to the courthouse for his parole.
“You realize one minor step backward can really affect an entire outcome,” he said.
He thinks parolees might need a little extra help, to make the transition successful, especially because everything from getting an ID to getting a job takes more of a process to go through than the average resident without a conviction.
“I think we need to be focusing on what are those processes we make people go through,” he said.
It is the same process some of InsideOut’s members went through and continue to go through every day.
“It’s just really stressful. A lot of people get bad anxiety. I did,” said former parolee Letisha Molina.
6 years after serving her last drug arrest, Molina said she has finally created a new life in Iowa City.
“I wanted to get clean and sober and I did it, and I didn’t want to go back to prison,” she said. “You got to have patience, don’t give up.”
Molina’s success did not come easy.
She, and others within the program, who have set goals for themselves before coming out of incarceration, are the exception to the overwhelming number of incarcerated people who face daily hurdles making money, paying rent and ultimately avoiding going back into the system.
InsideOut members hope more parolees can continue to become exceptions to the struggles of life after prison, and they believe by teaching those in the community about struggles of life after parolee is a good place to start.
Every year in Johnson County, between 200 and 250 people leave prison and re-enter society.
At a parole simulation on Wednesday, more than 50 elected officials, landlords, business owners and community members got to experience that process firsthand.
The simulation gave each participant a fictional character and forced them to navigate the obstacles that former inmates deal with while they get their lives back on track — things like checking in with a parole officer, going to court, obtaining an ID, passing a drug test, applying for rent assistance and going to counseling.
At the end of a “month” in the life of a parolee — represented by four, 15-minute “weeks” — more than half the participants in the event ended up in jail.
For many, the experience was frustrating.
“Why do I need to get food? I can starve,” said Jasmine Porter, one of the participants.
Porter’s character was faced with the choice of buying food or paying child support. Porter went to give plasma for some quick cash, but she had a fever and was turned away. She couldn’t pay the child support, so she ended up in jail
Porter, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa, said she’s not surprised by the challenges, since she’s seen them in her role helping others navigate social services as a minority family advocate.
Still, she said the simulation showed “how easy it is to get broken down and to just give up” for someone who’s experiencing those obstacles.
“I think the demonstration is good. I’d like to see a lot of people try it out and for them to do it in a lot of different settings, different professions,” she said. “That way people get to see how chaotic or how frustrating it can be for people trying to re-enter back into society.”
Seemingly simple things like getting an ID or finding transportation around town were surprisingly difficult, many people said.
Another challenge? Learning to use new technology like cell phones that didn’t exist when people began their prison terms, said Anthony Upchurch, who spent 15 years in prison in Illinois. Upchurch spoke at a panel of former inmates after the simulation.
Participants found themselves making choices that surprised them. Some quickly gave up on finding housing, preferring to use their limited time and resources elsewhere. One man said he got someone to cover for him so he could sneak out of work and run errands that would send him back to jail if he didn’t complete them.
“I turned into a mean person,” one woman said.
Letisha Molina, who spent time in prison in Arizona and is now a volunteer with Inside Out, said she understood the participants’ frustration. Molina worked at a mock social services center during the simulation and said she knows applying for programs like food assistance can eat up valuable time out of the day.
“You’re going to be there for half an hour waiting to be approved,” she said.
The simulation, held at Kirkwood Regional Center at 2301 Oakdale Blvd. in Coralville, was put on by Inside Out Reentry Community, ReEntry Network and IowaWORKS. Richard Grugin, an Inside Out volunteer who helped plan the event, said he hopes to hold future simulations targeted more specifically towards landlords and business owners.
“You want people to take away — I don’t know if you’d call it empathy — but an understanding of what returning citizens go through,” Grugin said. “A lot of people think they know and have empathy for people, but they really don’t know.”
Don Ross, who sits on a Johnson County foster care review board, said he heard about the simulation through his church and wanted to participate.
“You can understand a little bit more about what they go through to get their lives straightened around,” he said.
For Ed Cole, it’s something he’s experienced firsthand.
Cole is the owner of Cole’s Community, which operates four mobile home parks in Iowa City and one in Kalona. He also served 47 months in federal prison a decade ago on a drug conspiracy charge. He said he never sold drugs, although he was addicted.
“It’s tough when you come out because people are stereotyping you and a lot of people aren’t forgiving,” he said.
He said he straightened himself out in prison and had the support of family and a church group when he got out. But for people without that network, it’s hard to reenter the community, he said.
Programs like Inside Out that connect people with resources when they leave prison can help, Cole said. So can landlords and employers who understand the difficulty of finding housing and work and don’t prejudge people.
“We do a background check, but for the most part we give people chances,” he said. “You have to give people second chances. I got a second chance.”
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.
A organization in Johnson County is helping ex-cons stay out of jail. Inside Out Re-Entry held a forum Wednesday in Coralville where participants shared their story.
“I never would’ve went back if I hadn’t had those people tell me ‘hey man you can do this,'” Robert Crader said.
Crader has been out of prison for more than two years. Since then, Crader enrolled in a trade school and will graduate soon. He gives all the credit to Inside Out Re-Entry, a program that helps convicted felons return to life, after time in prison.
“A lot of people don’t have other resources and other people to support them. So this is integral,” Carder said. “This is so important to people returning from prison to have someone that’s going to help them get their leg up when they get out.”
Inside Out says one of three felons is back behind bars within five years. That’s where Director Mike Cervantes comes in.
“It’s crucial to have as much help as possible for those individuals,” Cervantes said.
So Inside Out works with area prisons to help inmates who are getting ready to leave.
“We provide help with the basics,” Cervantes said. “We also work with people on providing a community of support, providing mentors, providing other people they can talk to.”
Crader praised the program for helping him adjust.
“That’s the most effective way to have somebody show them that you love them and show them that you support them and that you want them to succeed. Their belief helped me believe in myself.”
After serving time in the corrections system, finding a job isn’t the easiest task. A new program in Johnson County is hoping more Iowans will return to the work force with the know-how to take on jobs in agriculture. Scott Koepke is education director for Grow Johnson County.
“I just started listening to people’s stories, from juvenile detention to Oakdale, and food insecurity was a part of all of them,” says Koepke. He’s been working with inmates at the Oakdale correctional facility on their five acre garden, which was producing a good yield of vegetables before Koepke started working with them.
“When society gives up on someone, that’s who I want in my garden. Gardening heals people. It was one of my first days out there with these guys, and I’m going to the parking lot, and they are going back to the prison. This guy turns around and he looks at me and says, ‘Hey man, why you spending time with screw ups like me?’ And it just hit me in the gut, and I said, ‘We’re all screw ups. That’s not the point. The point is, ‘what are we going to do now, so that you don’t come back?'”
During this hour of Talk of Iowa, Koepke talks with host Charity Nebbe. Director of Inside Out Re-entry, Mike Cervantes, also joins the program.
Inside Out was honored to receive the Jean Martin Community Service Award for 2017 from the Iowa City Federation of Labor. Jean was an Iowa City activist and union member who passed away in 2011. A lovely tribute to Jean’s life is here:
In a cozy garret above a downtown Iowa City church, a group of people gathered to talk about the work they’re doing. Or would like to do.
People returning to society after being released from prison attend skills-building workshops here or confer with mentors, or can attend a spiritual seekers group, as part of the Inside Out Re-entry Community.
Though they’ve done their time, recently released “insiders” face tremendous challenges — a place to live, finding a job and, often, distrust in the community. Job applications may ask about felony convictions, making it difficult to land employment. Felons in Iowa are unable to vote. And some must take frequent and invasive drug tests.
Inside Out offers leads on employment and on a place to live. And, perhaps most importantly, it offers a sense of direction.
“It’s hard in the beginning,” Letisha Molina says. “You have to have patience. Well, in prison, you’re always standing in line, so you learn some patience,” she laughs.
Molina had no idea about her credit score when released, for example. She got help with that and also her first job through Inside Out. She’s now working at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, a job with state benefits, something that was inconceivable to her on the inside.
Director Mike Cervantes says the program is starting to work with more people before they’re released, helping get a re-entry plan established. The Department of Corrections has a program, but it stops at the gate. This helps bridge that gap.
Returning citizens constantly jump through hoops, especially for housing. Public housing is hard to access, especially if you have a criminal background. And landlords in general can refuse to rent based on criminal background.
Johnson County Housing Trust Fund has helped on this front, paying the deposit and first few months of rent for seven people so far. The dream, Cervantes says, is for Inside Out to someday have its own housing.
Jay Santana, who’s been out for a few weeks, is staying at the new Catholic Worker House, while looking for employment.
He points to the importance of honesty, noting that returning citizens need to have a conversation with landlords, be upfront about their past, and let the landlord make an informed decision.
And during our conversation, an interesting moment occurs. Santana is talking about his expertise in online media management; Molina brightens — can you teach me computers? They connect.
This kind of trust-building is perhaps the project’s greatest gift. Molina points out. “I used to sell drugs, and was often getting beaten up, and running away. I didn’t trust nobody. This program helped me. Learning to trust was huge.”
“You have to understand,” Santana adds, “in prison people have been stripped of value. There’s little respect from the staff. It wears you down. Once you’re out, you may feel that people dislike you. You have to build yourself up.”
Cervantes says volunteers make the program work. “We participate as equals. And we recognize that we all have issues. And all have potential for growth and change.”
Dorothy Whiston, program founder, adds that there are many issues a person who’s been incarcerated for years faces — maybe not knowing how a cellphone works or starting a bank account. Or having low self-esteem.
And yet, she continues, people leaving prison are much more like people in the community than not. There’s always laughter and good music coming from these offices, Whiston says, characterizing the program as “hard work in the context of joy.”
They’re expanding year to year, but do need stable funding — a fundraising committee has been set up. Needs also include mentors and transporters, furniture, and pots and pans. To help, call 338-7996.
Writers’ Group member Andy Douglas lives in Iowa City and is author of “The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga.”
When Letisha Molina went looking for a new apartment, she was rejected 12 times.
She had bad credit, she says, but there was another issue tripping up potential landlords: her criminal past.
Molina has been to prison twice for using and selling drugs in Arizona. She used to use crack cocaine, but Oct. 11 will mark five years of sobriety. Two years ago, she moved to Iowa City looking for a fresh start.
Mike Cervantes, director of the Iowa City-based Inside Out Reentry Program, which works with Molina, said finding a place to live is often the biggest hurdle for people who were formerly incarcerated.
“In Iowa City it’s so difficult to get an apartment that if you’ve got anything in your background you have to do a little bit more to get the landlord to consider you,” Cervantes said.
It wasn’t until Inside Out encouraged Molina to write a cover letter to her potential landlords explaining how she’s turned her life around that she was able to secure her current residence: a two-bedroom apartment on Broadway Street.
She’s hoping to regain custody of two of her children, ages 12 and 13, who still live in Arizona. This weekend, for the first time in two years, Molina will fly back to Arizona to visit her kids and appear before a judge to make her case.
Part of that case relies on her having enough space for the kids, Molina said. That’s why the smaller one-bedroom apartment she previously lived in wasn’t cutting it.
In fact, when Molina moved to Iowa, leaving behind an abusive boyfriend who had her selling drugs, even her family thought she was abandoning her responsibilities. Since then, they’ve learned better.
“A lot of my family really thought I came down here to get away so I could get high, but when they see what the Inside Out program has done for me — and I stuck by this program, I kept going to church, I got involved in my church — they were very proud of me,” Molina said.
‘There’s certainly a stigma’
Finding housing after a prison sentence isn’t only challenging, it’s expensive, said Mark Sertterh, associate executive director at Shelter House in Iowa City.
Sertterh said Shelter House often helps people who are homeless and have a criminal past find housing, and there have been times when they have gone through five or 10 rental applications before they can find a landlord willing to take a chance. With fees running around $20 to $35 per application, the costs add up.
Iowa City’s work toward more affordable housing will help, said Heidi Cuda, regional director of Prelude Behavioral Services, which offers services to people who struggle with substance abuse in Iowa, Washington, Cedar and Johnson counties.
But the stigma is still there, especially if someone has a substance abuse problem in their past, she said.
“It’s hard to find housing because you have a criminal record. So there’s certainly a stigma. People just kind of don’t want to deal with them,” Cuda said.
‘Oh, this guy’s got a criminal record’
Finding a job can be another challenge for people leaving prison, but Caleb Wierman said he found it was best to be open and honest with employers about his past.
When Wierman was 18 he moved to Iowa from Florida, but he grew restless and wanted to go back home. He stole cash and a truck to try to make the trip, but he was caught by authorities. After running away from his halfway house, Wierman was sent to jail for about 10 years. He was released from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville in July.
But all that’s behind him now, he said.
“It’s one thing to look online and see, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a criminal record,’ but it’s a completely different story when the guy actually sits down and you tell him exactly what happened and why it happened and what you did,” Wierman said. “Then they get to know you a little bit more instead of just looking at a sheet of paper that’s got a lengthy criminal record.”
After an interview at Neumiller Electric, Wierman said was offered a job on the spot. And although he was laid off about two weeks ago after a knee injury, he said his boss told him he’ll be rehired when he’s healthy. In the meantime, Wierman got another job at Family Dollar in Maquoketa, where he just moved with his girlfriend.
Still, some employers won’t budge. Finding a job is especially hard for people who have multiple drug convictions or have served prison time, Cuda said.
“The folks that have the biggest challenges are the ones who have felony convictions on their record. It makes it really difficult to get a job,” she said.
That was the case for Miranda Lalla, an Iowa City resident convicted of vehicular manslaughter two years ago for a 2012 incident where she ran over a woman with her pickup truck while intoxicated.
Lalla has now been sober for more than four years and attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. When she got out of prison in January, she stayed in transitional housing offered by Prelude until she could find a job and place to live, but employer after employer ignored her applications or turned her down when they learned of her charge.
“I only had one place that called me back for the interview, and that’s when she told me that she couldn’t hire me. But other than that nobody called me back,” Lalla said.
Transportation takes a shift in mindset
Eventually, Lalla was able to get a job at the Hampton Inn in Iowa City.
She bikes to work because she’s barred from driving for six years as a result of her conviction. While Lalla said she doesn’t mind biking, she said she would eventually like to get a driver’s license.
Transportation is a common problem for people coming out of prison, Cervantes said.
“Until I started working (at Inside Out) I didn’t realize how many people didn’t have a driver’s license. There’s a fair number of people who don’t, and that limits them in terms of the type of work they can do as well, besides getting to work,” he said.
In the winter, Lalla will either have to catch a ride with one of her coworkers or wake up earlier before her 5:30 a.m. shift and walk the 45 minutes from her apartment to the hotel. No buses run along the route.
Molina’s job at Goodwill is close enough that she can bike or walk to work. She doesn’t have a driver’s license either but said she wants to get one once she’s paid off a fine for driving without a license.
‘My family went through so much’
Another common thread shared by many re-entering society after a prison sentence is the toll it takes on family life.
“My family is really old school. I went to prison. I did it to myself, so I’m on my own,” Wierman said of his time behind bars. “When I got out, they’ve been there for me.”
The trip from Maquoketa to Dubuque, where his mother lives, is about 30 minutes, and he sees her almost every weekend. And, he said, his girlfriend has been very supportive.
“She knows everything about me. She’s not judgmental at all. She’s very understanding and she knows I’m trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Lalla has a 21-year-old son who still lives in the Iowa City area, but because of her drug use she hasn’t seen him in over 15 years.
“That was on me because I kept choosing the drugs over him,” she said. While her son has said he’s not ready to see her yet, Lalla still sends him letters every month letting him know how she’s doing.
She said she knows she caused her family to suffer during her multiple run-ins with the criminal justice system over the years. At the time, she didn’t believe she could do anything different.
“I understand all of my family went through so much with me because I had chances after chances of probation,” Lalla said. “I was in drug court and I still would fall. There were different things that were in the factor of it, but it didn’t matter. I still did not believe in myself.”
One month after opening Iowa City’s first Catholic Worker House, a three-bedroom house on Sycamore Street that will provide up to 30 days of shelter for those in need, David Goodner said the house already is full.
Goodner, a live-in volunteer at the 1414 Sycamore Street house, at the beginning of the month officially opened the house with the help of fellow volunteer Emily Sinnwell. The two already are providing shelter to two recently-released prisoners and a single mother with two teenage sons.
While the Catholic Worker House is new to Iowa City, it is not a new concept. In 1933, the Catholic Worker movement was founded by Dorothy Day in New York City.
“Dorothy Day, during the height of the Great Depression, basically created a decentralized network of Catholic that, instead of relying on becoming a nonprofit organization, is a more decentralized volunteer-base network model,” Goodner said.
Since its founding, the movement has spread internationally. This year, the The Phil Berrigan House — the Catholic Worker house in Des Moines where Goodner had lived and volunteered for six years and where Sinnwell had volunteered since high school — celebrates its 40th anniversary.
The basic philosophy of the Catholic Worker is based on what are called the works of mercy, Goodner said, which include: house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, speak truth to power and bear witness to injustice.
“The idea is to ask: if Jesus was alive today, where would we find him? He would probably be with the single mother, or in the face of the homeless war veteran. If he was living in Iowa City today, that’s where you’d find Jesus,” Goodner said.
Per city code, guests are not able to stay more than 30 days, Goodner said, but can use that time to save money and “get back on their feet and back into the world.”
Sinnwell, a nurse practitioner who is finishing a psychiatric fellowship at the Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, splits her time between Iowa City and Des Moines. She said once renovations are done at the Iowa City house, the plan is to open the house on the weekends to allow the homeless or those in need a place to shower, eat, use the phone, get a haircut or simple medical help.
“Our goal is to live simply and provide hospitality and be welcoming and let people know there’s a place they can come,” she said.
Goodner said before the Iowa City Catholic Workers bought the house on July 1, they spent their time working with the city to see if the house could be opened. Goodner and other supporters began talking to local congregations to round up donations and volunteers. To date, he and Sinnwell have brought more than 250 volunteers and raised over $75,000.
He said they also work with other area service agencies like Shelter House and the Salvation Army. The two prisoners who currently have shelter at the house come from the Inside-OUT Re-Entry Program.
“Emily and I are really just bottom lining everything and organizing everything, but it’s much bigger than us. A lot of the people that are showing up are referrals from other agencies,” Goodner said.
Donations were used to make a $40,000 down payment on the house. Future donations will be used to make renovations and cover costs as needed.
“In addition to the money we’ve raised, we’ve also gotten furniture. Somebody gave us a piano, all the beds in the house, people have been bringing in food. We’ve already established a pretty substantial supply chain,” Goodner said.
Lee Mickey, a parishioner at the St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Coralville, said she was happy to know the movement was coming to Iowa City and already has been working to help the cause.
Mickey said she has contributed financially to the Catholic Worker house, but also has donated bedding, towels and rugs.
“I thought it was very important that everybody has bedding or towels for showers. I feel like I’m just one person in many because a lot of my friends have said they are certainly ready to help out when the need arises,” Mickey said. “I feel lucky I’ve never had that sort of problem in my life, but I really appreciate that this is what Catholic Worker houses do; They fill a need for people who are homeless or who are in transition.
“To have a house like that in Iowa City, and to have David oversee it, it’s just really important and it’s just something that, until you see the happiness on their faces and how they speak about having the opportunity to get on with their life is just wonderful.”
Looking to expand
Goodner said at this stage the house and his efforts are fairly small, but hopes to eventually buy more properties and open more Catholic Worker houses. He also hopes to eventually offer weekend meals, meal deliveries and a community potluck during which residents can cook food in the house and enjoy meals with guests.
“We’re always raising our capacity and maturing as an institution and, especially with the size we are now in Iowa City, a lot of the things we try and introduce will be phased in,” Goodner said.
Sinnwell said the house already has had to turn potential guests away. She said she and Goodner have been able to provide money for hotel stays for a few people who have approached them, but the fact that the Catholic Worker house already has more requests than it rooms illustrates the need.
“There’s an obvious need in Iowa City whether we’re aware of it or not. Our goal isn’t to solve the housing crisis by any means, just to help people be aware of it and be active in helping fill in the gaps where we can,” she said.