The Workforce Development Challenges of Returning Citizens: A Simulation from Mitchellville, Iowa

By Marva Williams

Iowa, like many other states has a growing prison population. In 1991, the state had roughly 4,500 inmates. By 2016, the number of prisoners had grown by 85 percent to about 8,300. Reducing recidivism in Iowa is a major concern. Prison officials have learned that high quality, coordinated services and supports before, during, and after release are required to reduce recidivism. It is also critical to understand the challenges of newly released prisoners for interventions to be effective.

CDPS was invited to participate in a meeting last fall organized by Central Iowa Works to participate in Community Connections Supporting Reentry training (CCSR). CCSR is an interactive simulation developed by the US Attorney’s office to help employers learn about the challenges of recently released citizens.

The simulation was offered at the Iowa Correction Institution for Women (ICIW) located in Mitchellville, 15 miles west of Des Moines. The simulation was attended by employers, including banks. In addition, there were federal and state workforce development staff and representatives from social service agencies.

The day began with presentations by Pat Steel from Central Iowa Works, Patti Wachtendorf, the warden of ICIW, and Kevin Vanderschel of Iowa’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Mr. Steel said that many of the difficulties that job training and placement agencies have with former convicts is due to the multiple responsibilities that they have. Central Iowa Works and America’s Job Honors program decided to host the summit to assist employers in recruiting and hiring returning citizens by offering a reentry simulation to shed light on the barriers they face. Mr. Steel asserted that sending returning citizens back to their communities with no ability to get a job or manage life’s responsibilities, is a recipe for recidivism and a costly mistake.

Ms. Wachtendorf described ICIW as a minimum and medium security prison for women with a population of about 850 inmates, 236 staff, and a budget of $22 million. The offenses of the inmates are varied. The most common offenses are drug-related, with others being violent crimes and crimes involving property. Most of the offenders have some form of mental illness and/or suffer from substance abuse problems, and generally have experienced some form of trauma. ICIW staff endeavor to improve the opportunities of inmates by providing work, computer, and other life skills training, including money management and emotional coping strategies.

Mr. Vanderschel explained that CCSR simulation is a way to demonstrate the challenges experienced by returning citizens. The simulation allows ex-offenders to experience four weeks of post-incarceration life in 15 minute segments. Each participant visits stations with volunteers acting as staff from banks, homeless shelters, courts, substance abuse testing and counseling agencies, businesses, transportation offices, probation offices, etc.  In preparation for the simulation, each participant receives a fictional profile that describes the life of a former prisoner and the responsibilities to be met within four weeks. Tasks included visiting these stations to obtain state identification, establish a bank account, buy transit tickets, get tested for drugs, attend a substance abuse meeting, and meet with parole officers. In addition, participants had to find housing, search for a job, and address outstanding warrants.

At the end of the first “week,” many felt frazzled. One participant had not reported to work or paid rent because it took so long to obtain a state-sanctioned ID, report for drug counseling and testing, and to purchase transit tickets. As a result, they had to live in a shelter until the end of the second “week.” As the simulation progressed, participants experienced further challenges including court appearances, failing a drug test, and the task of budgeting to pay for basic needs, such as groceries, rent, and transportation.

The simulation provided an opportunity to experience the exasperation and frustrations that a newly-released prisoner may feel. Prison life does not allow people to manage their lives—decisions are made for them. In addition, many are experiencing these challenges for the first time. Some former prisoners have never held a job or been responsible for paying rent and managing their finances.

After the simulation there was a facilitated debriefing that allowed participants to share their immediate reactions. Many were surprised by the number of responsibilities that former prisoners must meet, in addition to every day responsibilities. They also expressed empathy and understanding of these challenges.

The program ended with three presentations. The first was by two inmates who talked about their sentences and experiences in ICIW, some of the programs they participated in, and hopes for their lives after release. The second presentation was by Kyle Horn, the Director of America’s Job Honors, which makes awards to companies that hire former prisoners and to returning citizens that have sustained a path to self-reliance. Last, a former convict talked about his experiences with prison and his struggles to build a life that embraces work, family, and self-sufficiency.

There are a myriad of challenges in the path of released citizens seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. Obtaining jobs that pay a living wage is key to their success. Therefore, encouraging employers to participate in the training is integral to reducing recidivism.

Workforce development programs which serve returning former prisoners must take into account the obstacles faced when seeking employment. CDPS has several publications on workforce development, including:

Employment Challenges for the Formerly Incarcerated
Emily Engel, Steven Kuehl, Mark O’Dell | 2016 | ProfitWise News and Views | No. 2

Workforce 2020: Is It Time for Disruptive Innovation?
Jason Keller, Diana Robinson, Norman Walzer | 2015 | ProfitWise News and Views | No. 4

From Classroom to Career: An Overview of Current Workforce Development Trends, Issues and Initiatives
Daniel DiFranco, Emily Engel, Ryan Patton | 2014 | ProfitWise News and Views | December | 4th

Community Colleges and Industry: How Partnerships Address the Skills Gap
Emily  Engel  | 2013 | ProfitWise News and Views | November

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