The Missouri Department of Corrections officially opened the Reentry Center at Tipton Correctional Center last Friday.
The Reentry Center is the first of its kind in Missouri — an office inside Tipton Correctional where offenders nearing release can search and apply for jobs, explore education opportunities, get help navigating child support processes, participate in computer concepts training and sign up for social services.
The idea is twofold, as providing access to such services helps boost employment success while simultaneously reducing the recidivism rate, or the rate at which individuals who are released from incarceration are likely to reoffend.
The new Reentry Center is a collaboration between partners across the state including the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, the Central Workforce Development Board, the Department of Social Services, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Vocational Rehab, Missouri community colleges, and State Technical College of Missouri.
Visitors heard from individuals from across these collaborations at Friday's ribbon-cutting and open house.
DOC Reentry Coordinator Shelle Jacobs said the center has been in the works for quite a while, and for good reason — the men and women released from Missouri prisons face overwhelming obstacles when they return to the public world. From having the proper documents to successfully nail down a job to even having the transportation necessary to get to it, Jacobs said, the challenges are immense if these individuals are unprepared.
"Do they even have a résumé put together that will help them get this job?" Jacobs said. "If they find that job, what about child care? And what about (whether) they can afford those steel-toed boots they may need to do that job?"
Jacobs said the solution was to bring in all the departments that specialize in these services to provide them pre-release, giving individuals an advance step in the right direction. She said throughout the process, it was great to see these different offices working together toward this common goal.
When considering where to house the Reentry Center, Jacobs said, the thought process revolved around making sure it went somewhere that releases a lot of folks back into the community.
"That way, we're helping the maximum number of people," Jacobs said.
In selecting Tipton, Jacobs said, Tipton Correctional Center Warden Brock Van Loo was very willing to work with organizers to make sure the Reentry Center office has everything it needs. Jacobs said it wasn't long before requesting to house the office at Tipton Correctional Center morphed into requesting internet access and installing carpet and painting to give the Reentry Center a different look than the rest of the prison, all ideas Van Loo was open to.
Van Loo said the biggest benefit for the Reentry Center will be the support it receives from the community. In turn, he said, the services that will now be accessible for incarcerated individuals will act as a benefit in their own right.
"This is going to help the community," Van Loo said. "I would much rather have somebody living next to me that has a job opportunity, has all the credentials to go get that job and work, than to have somebody sitting there wondering what they're going to do."
Van Loo said this will serve as a stepping stone, where hopefully Tipton is the model for more projects like this one throughout the state. Personally, he said, he'd like to look into providing vocational classes through the Reentry Center along with its other services to give individuals an opportunity to learn a hands-on skill.
DOC Director Anne Precythe said Friday served as a truly exciting day for corrections in Missouri, as the idea had started with just a simple conversation. Precythe said there's a lot of talk in corrections about what people would like to see happen, but making those ideas a reality isn't always possible. This one, however, was different — a collaboration between many individuals who wanted to get it done, she said.
Precythe said there's an expectation placed on parole officers to help newly released individuals get their lives in order that is made all the more difficult by some of the distractions that may await outside a prison's walls.
"By the time our folks get back in the community, these outside impacts, these outside distractions, start to come into play and they lose sight of everything they had thought they would do when they left," Precythe said. "So if we can get them on the right path while they're here, while they're focused, while they're ready, while the parole board has motivated them to do the right thing then when they come out and they have the supports in the community, now they're ready to go."
Precythe said the ultimate goal is to have released individuals starting their jobs the day after they get out of prison, so they're able to keep the structure that guided them prior to their release.
Precythe said it's about giving people a "hand up" rather than a "hand out," so they're truly ready to embrace what the community has to offer them.
"We've got to make this an environment where people want to change," Precythe said. "Not have to change, but they want to do better than what they did before. They want to learn what they didn't learn or take advantage of before they came to us. We can't make anyone do anything, but we can afford them the opportunity if they want (it)."
Julie Carter, of the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, said it is an honor to be a part of this history-making event in the state. Carter said it's a true testament to the partnerships that Missouri has created.
Carter recognized Kristina Broadway, Sundi Jo Graham and Heather Brown with the Central Region Workforce Board's Reentry Division, who will staff the Reentry Center three days a week.
Reentry Manager Ken Chapman said creating an environment conducive to fostering ideas is important, and the culture in the DOC in recent years has shifted to one where nothing is off the table. Chapman said that's how ideas like this one are able to come to fruition.
He said this attitude, and especially the amount of collaboration he's seen between various state entities, has helped create a system where they can work with as many people as possible to help make a difference.
"Our state needs for us to improve lives for safer communities," Chapman said.
Chapman said the group effort involved with working together under this same vision will help to impact the most people possible.
"As we do that with these men here at Tipton, we are going to impact so many other lives," Chapman said. "The lives of their children — that's where my heart is. I want to change the lives of those kids. Those children are nine times more likely to come to prison. I don't want them here. I want to keep them out. I want to give them every opportunity to be successful."