Public forum on reentry after incarceration at the Coralville Library this week

Welcome Home: A Forum on Reentry After Incarceration

Coralville Public Library — Wednesday, April 5 at 12:30 p.m.

Photo by Dave Nakayama (cropped)

Inside Out Reentry and the Re-entry Network of Johnson County present an event April 5 to examine the transition from incarceration to the outside world.

“There are obstacles for people coming out of prison in almost every aspect of life, so they will be laying out some of the challenges and some of the possibilities,” said Dorothy Whiston, a board member and co-founder of Inside Out and the Re-entry Network.

Bringing multiple perspectives together to address multiple challenges

The forum will include informational displays, guest speakers and breakout discussions around topics like housing, employment, education and training, substance abuse, mental health, personal growth and community integration, probation and parole. The event is free and open to the public, and especially aims to bring those who are returning to the community from incarceration, those who work with the formerly incarcerated, employers and landlords into the conversation.

The keynote speaker will be James McKinney, the warden at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale Prison, which is the single point of reception for men who are sentenced to prison in Iowa and also contains the Department of Corrections‘ only licensed inpatient mental health unit in the state.

“Warden McKinney is an exceptionally progressive person in corrections, and really does have an innovative vision about what it means to help people from the beginning of their time in prison build the lives they want to build and that society needs for them to build to be successful on the outside,” Whiston said.

Oakdale brings members of the outside community into the prison to teach music lessons, work in their five-acre garden, participate in book groups and sing in the Oakdale Community Choir, Whiston said. Some inmates participate in Alternatives to Violence, “experiential workshops in personal growth and creative conflict management” (according to their website), built around the experiences of the participants. This international organization was begun by Quakers but is now secular, offering support to both community-based and prison-based volunteer groups in 40 states and 20 countries.

“Inside singers” and “outside singers” perform for loved ones in the Oakdale Community Choir– still from Indiegogo promotional video

Other speakers include representatives of IowaWORKS (a statewide workforce development program), Sixth Judicial District Probation and Parole, Iowa City Housing Authority (assists low-income residents with affordable housing), the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health and Prelude Behavioral Services (a substance abuse and behavioral health services organization.)

“In the Johnson County area, housing is actually a bigger obstacle or challenge than employment because we have a pretty low unemployment rate here and wages are better than average in the state. But housing in Johnson County is very expensive and we have a very high rate of occupancy, and so people are less willing to rent to people who have a felony conviction. Several public housing programs exclude people with certain kinds of convictions, and so that’s a huge challenge,” Whiston said.

Behavioral health and personal growth can also be a real hurdle upon reentry because many are hesitant to ask for help, Whiston said. The Affordable Care Act has made care somewhat more accessible in terms of what agencies can provide, she said, however those who have been involuntarily forced to accept mental health services in the past may not automatically embrace it as a positive thing.

The way forward

Whiston said she has seen the beginnings of change over the past five or ten years. “I think now we know that people’s reentry progress needs to begin probably from the day they’re arrested but definitely from the day they’re sentenced, so we don’t warehouse people for x number of years and then suddenly expect them to do well,” Whiston said.

Notes from the Inside
Inside Oakdale Prison, the Hubbub Job Club successfully opened a produce stand. — illustration by Josh Carroll

Whiston said practical solutions like “ban the box” legislation that removes criminal history from the job application process until the interview phase of hiring, can help address specific problems people face upon reentry.

Inside Out, open Monday-Thursday 1-5 p.m., seeks to facilitate the reentry process for people in the local community. Their resource center helps its visitors build life skills like personal finance, healthy relationship strategies and job skills, and shares information about housing assistance, health care and other community resources and volunteer activities.

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The mass incarceration of the past generation has wreaked havoc on many communities, particularly among people of color, who are more likely to be victims of a criminal justice system that discriminates against them, Whiston said. Fragmented communities add to the challenges of reentry.

“Communities of color have been devastated, so they don’t even have the community to return to that’s intact in the way that some other communities are,” Whiston said.

The most effective step toward addressing the challenges of reentry would be addressing the broken criminal justice system, Whiston said.

“There’s 70 million people in this country who have college degrees, and there are also 70 million people in this country who have criminal convictions, and I think we are completely unaware that not only do we have a huge discrepancy in terms of wealth in this country, we have a huge discrepancy in terms of opportunity. We really have created a whole class of people whose opportunities are much more limited in terms of employment or education or just maintaining family life,” Whiston said.

To attend this event, which runs 12:30-4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5, RSVP to

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