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Reentry center hopes to break the reincarceration cycle

FCC Corrections Case Manager Matthew Petty is especially proud of the theater where inmates can watch movies as a reward for putting in the work required as participants in reentry center programming. (Kevin R. Jenkins)

Latest center recently opens at Farmington Correctional Center

Kevin R. Jenkins,

For movie buffs, the scene is so familiar that it has almost become a cliché.

Having completed a long prison sentence, an inmate is escorted to the penitentiary gate by a stone-faced guard and suddenly finds themselves thrust back into the outside world with little more than the clothes on their back, a couple of bucks in their pocket — and if they’re lucky — a bus ticket to somewhere.

Unlike countless scenes in Hollywood movies that tend to be based more on a scriptwriter’s creative mind than reality, the plight of many men and women released from prison is very real. Faced with the overwhelming challenge of rebuilding their lives, they have few skills and even fewer resources with which to start over. At Farmington Correctional Center, they’re trying to change that.

According to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison every year, and studies show that approximately two-thirds will likely be rearrested within three years of release.

Exploring ways the justice system can aid a prisoner’s reentry into society, a DOJ website states, “The high volume of returnees is a reflection of the tremendous growth in the U.S. prison population during the past 30 years. For the communities to which most former prisoners return — communities that are often impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods with few social supports and persistently high crime rates — the release of ex-offenders represents a variety of challenges.

“What can be done to help people who are released from prison keep from being rearrested? With no job, no money, and no place to live, returnees often find themselves facing the same pressures and temptations that landed them in prison in the first place.”

Assisting ex-prisoners in finding and keeping employment, identifying transitional housing, and receiving mentoring are what the DOJ says are “three key elements of successful re-entry into our communities.”

And how has the Missouri Department of Corrections decided to take on the challenge of providing those three key elements? With the opening of reentry centers at 11 state prisons, with more to come in the years ahead.

“Reentry centers are essentially one-stop shops for people preparing for release from prison,” said Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections. “They’re stocked with computers where people can access the resources they need to start their new lives.

A Farmington Correctional Center inmate named Mark talks about how the reentry center has made his life, and the life of other inmates, better as they prepare to reenter society. (Kevin R. Jenkins)

“They’re staffed with employment specialists, housing specialists, reentry specialists and peers who can help get people on the right track. They’re also connected to other state government agencies that can help people get birth certificates, Social Security cards, state IDs and other documents they need.”

Now the project has come to southeast Missouri with the recent opening of a reentry center at Farmington Correctional Center (FCC). Pojmann described it as “the newest and also one of the most impressive in the state.”

The early success of the reentry center was experienced during a recent tour of the building given by FCC’s Reentry Services Supervisor Billie Since and Institutional Reentry Coordinator Shelia Pigmon. While prisons, by their very nature, aren’t intended to offer an inviting and friendly environment, there is definitely a different feel to the reentry center — call it a feeling of hope.

As part of instilling that feeling of hope in the prisoners who live in the correctional facilities, the staff refers to them as “residents.”

During the tour, brief stops were made at a commercial driver’s license (CDL) class and a computer lab where residents use top-of-the-line computers and software. The looks seen on the residents’ faces was enlightening. There was no anger, no signs of bitterness. They were learning how to better themselves; giving their all to do whatever it took to never return to prison again.

Take, for example, an FCC resident named Mark who was first incarcerated in March 2015.

“I was arrested, went to the county jail, and I got into the Missouri Department of Corrections, I believe, in September or October of 2017,” he said. “I am in the middle of getting back into court, trying to get some things reversed. What drew me to the reentry center was when I was down in Charleston at the Southeast Correctional Center.

“When I left the camp, I was part of what was called the transitional housing unit. Its whole purpose with the guys was to get them ready to get back out into society. And so, when my level dropped and I was transferred here, one of the first things I thought about was how to recreate some of those activities, and lo and behold, the reentry center presented itself, so I’m pretty excited.”

Asked what he found helpful about opportunities provided FCC residents through the reentry center.

“I think one of the things that has been really helpful is the community partnerships,” he said. “Helping guys as far as making sure their paperwork is in order — like birth certificates, identification cards, and also classes. I think that one thing I’ve learned is that, in order to ask guys to not reoffend and not come back, we have to give them the proper tools to be able to go out and be successful. That’s a lot of what they do in here. Classes teach you about your decision making, and also some of the vocational opportunities like the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) classes and things like that. So, a big part is the community partnerships.”

Mark is already thinking about what he wants to do after he is released from prison.

“I am thinking about going into ministry,” he said. “I feel a strong call for that. But whatever I do, I plan on finding some way to partner with institutions, not just in the state, but hopefully around the country. I hope to be able to go travel, speak, help, aid, and assist because I do think that there is a large segment of society that would benefit from these types of programs.”

Given an opportunity to share whatever else he felt was important about the reentry center, Mark said, “I just want it to be known that the [program participants] are putting forth an extreme amount of effort and hard work in making this what it’s supposed to be, in my opinion. A lot of times, guys have gotten used to being told, ‘Good luck,’ and ‘Don’t come back,’ and not being given the tools to not come back.

“Since being over here and being a part of some of the programs and some of the things that they’re getting ready to do still, it’s exciting to know that there are actually people who are committed to making sure that we do give guys the tools to not re-offend — to actually go out, rejoin society and be productive in society. And so, to just be a part of that, it motivates me.”

It may look imposing from the outside, but the new reentry center at the Farmington Correctional Center is offering skill training, practical helps and hope to offenders preparing to reenter the “real world.” (Kevin R. Jenkins)

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