They Served Their Time and Now They’re Working to Win Back Right to Vote

The Iowa City Press Citizen, 16 January 2019, by Hillary Ojeda]

Doren Walker and Todd Williams, of Kalona and Mt. Pleasant respectively, lost their right to vote after being convicted of felonies in the state of Iowa. But they’re working to change that. They’re two of more than 52,000 Iowans unable to vote despite serving their time in the state, according to Washington, D.C.-based research center The Sentencing Project. Felon voting rights made national headlines in November when Florida residents successfully voted in a measure to restore voting rights for its convicted felons, with a few exceptions. In her Condition of the State address Tuesday, Governor Kim Reynolds mentioned the Florida result and said she doesn’t “believe voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person.”

Iowa is one of three states that takes away the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony forever, Gov. Reynolds would like to restore that right. 

She said she’s starting the process to change the constitutional amendment stripping the right to vote for those convicted of felonies.  

Walker and Williams, however, aren’t waiting for the constitutional amendment to be implemented. They submitted their applications to the governor’s clemency program in October and are waiting for a response. Reynolds said she’s restored the right to vote to 88 individuals through the program, a process advocates say is “arduous.” 

“It was the most complicated, convoluted thing I’ve seen,” Williams said, adding that he tried to submit his application years ago but was discouraged by the paperwork. 

He said it wasn’t until Walker convinced him to take up the process again that he did it. 

With the help of a University of Iowa graduate student and the advocacy program for formerly incarcerated folks, Inside Out Reentry Community, the two collected their legal documents and sent them to the Office of the Governor. 

“There’s a misconception that felons never can, and never will [vote]” said Dan Tallman, of the UI master’s program of social work. “But it’s possible to get your rights restored.”

As part of his studies, he’s doing his social work practicum, similar to an internship, at the Inside Out Reentry Community this year. 

He said the application process for restoring voting rights is more complicated than it needs to be. And as for Reynolds’ proposal, he said she could restore voting rights to felons through an executive order like former Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack, rather than through a constitutional amendment which could take longer. 

Felons were allowed the right to vote, after they served their time, when Vilsack issued an executive order in July 2005. Former Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded the order in 2011. 

“It would have to go through two legislatures to pass,” Tallman said. In addition, a majority of voters would need to approve a ballot measure for the amendment to finally go through. Still, he said, he hopes it happens. 

“When we get there it will be a great thing,” he said. “But it still means people will be disenfranchised for another half-decade or so.” 

Michelle Heinz, Inside Out Reentry Community executive director, said not having the right to vote is difficult for the program’s members. 

“It’s extremely frustrating to them because they want to be part of the political process,” she said. 

A Resource Guide for People Leaving Prison

[Source: “A Resource Guide for People Leaving Prison,” Iowa Public Radio, 27 December 2017, by Rob Dillard]

A Johnson County-based nonprofit is joining with the Iowa Department of Corrections to produce an on-line resource guide for people who are being released from prison. The organization is trying to compile a complete list of support services available in the state.

The group Inside Out Reentry Community formed in 2015 to assist recently incarcerated men and women find jobs, housing, counseling services and even clothing after their release. Its director Mike Cervantes says there is plenty of support for these people, but it’s not always easy to find.

“Small organizations across the state are trying to do a lot to help people, but that information is really scattered,” he says.

Cervantes says one goal is to make sure everyone leaving prison receives the help they need.

“The reentry support people were receiving was pretty mixed,” he says. “Some people were getting really good help, other people less so.”

Inside Out Reentry Community worked with Iowa’s nine correctional facilities to collect resource information and post it to its web site. Cervantes says the guide will be updated every six months as he becomes aware of more contacts. The Iowa Department of Corrections estimates 95 percent of current inmates will eventually be released.

The guide can be found at

Prison art exhibit in Iowa City to raise awareness of ex-offenders’ challenges

[Source: “Prison art exhibit in Iowa City to raise awareness of ex-offenders’ challenges,” The Gazette, 28 December 2017, by Erin Jordan]

IOWA CITY — Making customized greeting cards was Doren Walker’s prison hustle, a way to earn behind-bars currency of toiletries, stamps or pop tokens.

One card colored by Walker is featured in “A Glimpse Inside: Art Produced in Iowa Prisons,” a small exhibit hosted through January by Little Village and InsideOut Reentry in Iowa City.

The 50 pieces, which include pencil sketches of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities, detailed drawings of colorful motorcycles and two larger pieces featuring what look like cartoon villains, are part of the art collection Walker built during his time behind bars.

“I’ve been collecting it for 15 years,” said Walker, 55, of Riverside.

His goal in sharing the art is to help Iowans see offenders as individuals with talent and skills, but who may need help finding a job or an affordable apartment after release.

Walker is a volunteer for InsideOut Reentry, an Iowa City not-for-profit that connects ex-offenders to the services and resources they need to return to society.

Prison artists have limited materials, including colored pencils, card stock and construction paper, Walker said. But making art in prison can stave off boredom, provide a temporary escape and help inmates earn extra “income,” he said.

“I had a very lucrative greeting card business the first few years I was in prison,” Walker said.

He and a few other guys would develop designs, say for Mother’s Day, that could be customized with offenders’ moms’ names or favorite colors. On prison payday — most offenders earn less than $1 per hour — Walker and his team would barter cards for items they needed or prison currency of pop tokens or stamps, he said.

He also commissioned custom art, like a piece with the outline of Iowa filled with prison bars and his last name above.

“It’s a huge part of my life,” he said of the collection.

Vicki Rush Siegel, a retired attorney who volunteers at InsideOut with Walker, encouraged him to show his collection. She talked with Mike Cervantes, InsideOut director, who asked Jordan Sellergren, art director for Little Village, if they could use the magazine’s lobby.

People can view the art most weekdays through Jan. 31 at Little Village, at 623 S. Dubuque St. The office is closed on federal holidays. The University of Iowa’s Daily Palette also is featuring individual pieces online.

New resource guide for ex-offenders

InsideOut Reentry, with support from the Iowa Department of Corrections, has released a new guide offering resources and services for people returning from incarceration.

The guide, which will be updated every six months, includes contact information for Iowa substance abuse services, housing options, mental health resources, support groups and more. The database has been provided at all nine Iowa correctional institutions and work release residential facilities, InsideOut reported.

The information also is available online at Links at the top of the page provide a complete re-entry support resources master guide and regional versions that are printable.

InsideOut’s re-entry simulation gives glimpse into the daily struggles for parolees

[Source: “InsideOut’s re-entry simulation gives glimpse into the daily struggles for parolees ,” CBS2, 19 October 2017, by Gabriela Vidal]

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.

Parole simulation puts public in former inmates’ shoes

[Source: “Parole simulation puts public in former inmates’ shoes,” The Press-Citizen, 19 October 2017, by Stephen Gruber-Miller]

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.

Parole simulation card
Jasmine Porter shows a card detailing her tasks during a parole simulation at the Kirkwood Regional Center on Wednesday. (Photo: Stephen Gruber-Miller / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

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.

Mike Cervantes at Parole Simulation
Mike Cervantes, director of the Inside Out Reentry Community, speaks during a parole simulation at the Kirkwood Regional Center on Wednesday. (Photo: Stephen Gruber-Miller / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

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.

Parole Simulation panel
Letisha Molina, left, speaks about the difficulty of reentering society after serving time in prison during a panel following a parole simulation at the Kirkwood Regional Center on Wednesday. (Photo: Stephen Gruber-Miller / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

“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.

Parole Simulation, homeless shelter
Don Ross, center, and others sit in the homeless shelter after failing to pay rent during a parole simulation at the Kirkwood Regional Center on Wednesday. (Photo: Stephen Gruber-Miller / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

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

[Source: “Iowa City re-entry program helps former inmates make the transition from prison to the outside world,” The Gazette, 17 September 2017, by Michaela Ramm]

Inside Out Reentry member
Craig Rockenbach, pictured Sept. 7, said the Inside Out Re-entry Program for former inmates helped him get a job at the newly constructed Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Iowa City, which is scheduled to open in October. (Michaela Ramm/The Gazette)

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.

Johnson County organization helping former inmates

[Source: “Johnson County organization helping former inmates,” KCRG, 5 April 2017, by Beau Bowman]

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.

Inside Out
A forum held in Coralville on Inside Out Reentry (Photo: Beau Bowman / KCRG-TV9)

“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.”