[Source: “Inside Out offers new start, second chance,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, 17 January 2017, by Andy Douglas]
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 Reentry 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.”