Formerly incarcerated women in Iowa share the challenges they faced during re-entry

Lisa Smith felt like “nothing was done” to prepare her for re-entry following the six years she served at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. She also wasn’t prepared for the loneliness she would feel.

“I was surrounded by women all the time, and when I got out, not only did I not have this huge community of women around me that I had lived in a small space with for six years, I was not allowed to speak to any of them — not even on the phone — or it would have sent me back to prison,” Smith said.

“I live in suburban Iowa, and six years later, I have no friends in my entire town because they look down on people that were incarcerated.”

Smith is not alone in the challenges she faced while re-entering. Formerly incarcerated people across the state — and country — face challenges when it comes to re-entering, whether that’s finding a job, securing housing or adapting to life outside of prison. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made re-entry even more difficult for individuals.

More than 90 percent of individuals in Iowa’s prisons will eventually be released.

Inside Out Reentry Community in Iowa City organized a virtual panel discussion last week with Smith and two other women in Iowa who were formerly incarcerated. The group’s executive director Michelle Heinz led the discussion and said the focus of the event was to “highlight the needs and unique experiences of women in re-entry.”

There are 580 women incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons, making up almost 8 percent of Iowa’s total prison population.

“We cannot discuss incarcerated women without addressing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system where women of color are significantly overrepresented, as well as the fact that the United States also disproportionately incarcerates individuals with mental illness,” Heinz said. “Women incarcerated in jails and prisons report high rates of mental health conditions and are almost twice as likely to have co-occurring substance use disorders and mental illness than men.”

Prior to the panel discussion, attendees heard a presentation from Michelle Daniel Jones, a researcher, advocate and writer. Jones, who was incarcerated for 20 years, is a founding member and board president of Constructing Our Future, a re-entry organization for women in Indiana.

“We know what questions to ask. We know what’s lacking. We’ve lived it,” Jones said about the organization, adding that the women who founded the organization were all previously incarcerated.

While Jones was incarcerated, she published and presented her research findings “to dispel notions about the reach and intellectual capacity of justice-involved women,” according to the Constructing Our Future website. She is currently a third-year doctoral student in the American Studies Program at New York University.

Jones said it is critical for re-entry organizations “to meet formerly incarcerated people at that intersection of housing and employment.”

“Unemployment is highest for people released in the last two years and that’s the time when they’re most vulnerable for reincarceration, but it’s also when they get hit with the reality of the greatest barriers facing them, be it in housing, in their education, be it in any kind of wealth-attainment category,” Jones said.

The challenges of re-entry were also echoed by the three women who participated in the panel discussion following Jones’ presentation.

Deb Theeler, who runs a re-entry group in Des Moines, said she hated re-entry and was “scared to death.” Theeler mentioned that her experience re-entering was different because she had a mentor who was a volunteer at the prison.

Theeler’s mentor helped her get a job and adjust to re-entry — but that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t difficult.

“I’ll never forget my first few days out. I didn’t even want to leave my room,” Theeler, who got out of prison in 2003, said.

Heather Stanfield, who was released in 2016 and is now pursuing a degree in psychology and creative arts therapy, said she’s still experiencing the stigma of having a felony on her record. The only jobs Stanfield was able to get were in food service, and she wasn’t given any resources for going back to school. She had to figure it out on her own.

“As soon as you started explaining it to [employers], it was like nothing else mattered about you as a person,” Stanfield said. “Even though I experienced that one situation, which I then did pay the dues for, then that’s just who you are as a person and … that’s all that you are after that.”

Smith said she was fortunate to have a job waiting for her when she got out of prison, but after a year and a half, she decided to leave the job and look for other employment. She couldn’t find anyone who was willing to hire her, despite being out of prison for 15 months and getting a loan from a bank to buy a house.

“It was a real shock to find out the ways society and employers look at formerly incarcerated people,” Smith said. “I didn’t expect it to be that hard.”

“I would like everybody to know that we’re awesome, and we’re wonderful, and we’re good employees, and we’re good people,” Smith added. “Sure we made some bad choices in our past, but our past does not have to define us, and we’re worth taking a chance on.”

[Source: Little Village Magazine, 28 October 2020, by Izabela Zaluska]