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Behind prison gates

By Lesley Neff, M.A. | February 26, 2018

Constructing Our Futures“There are categories of people deemed expendable in this society” (2018). You won’t find this quote if you Google it; it belongs to my mother, Kathy—her response to a lack of resources for those who suffer from mental health and the struggle felons face finding employment. Unfortunately, women at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), on Indy’s west side, are a gleaming example of what my mother meant by “expendable”.

Who are these women, and what opportunities truly exist upon release for them? Sadly, not much. There are scarce opportunities for felons, because the stigma walks with them forever. However, with the dedication of local non-profits, such as Sagamore Institute, and volunteers, as well as some Marian University MAP students, there is hope for change.

Society’s infatuation with prison life is significant, but not so much with what happens to these men and women upon release. There are dozens of Netflix documentaries and movies, offering a glimpse into this life, this environment in which so few ever experience. I asked a colleague what she thinks it is like behind prison walls, and she replied, “prison is a place for people who commit violent crimes. A scary and uncomfortable place to be” (2017). Most people picture bad people, murderers, criminals in cuffs and jumpsuits and armed guards lining the parameter, people who many believe do not deserve second chances.

That’s not the reality.

There are women serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses or who were caught “holding the bag”, literally, for a boyfriend or husband. Others suffer from mental health and/or addiction, but they never received the proper treatment. It could be easily argued that some of the women doing time do not belong behind bars; in fact, they have a great deal of intelligence, creativity, compassion, humor, and work ethic to contribute to society if we let them and if we help to prepare them.

In fact, many inmates at Indiana Women’s Prison make incredible and productive use of their time. Women train dogs in the ICAN program to be service animals, teaching them to comfort children with autism and to remind diabetic patients to take their medication. They work in the baby dorm, as some women are able to keep their babies with them. Another group of women are part of a program who build mosquito nets for beds in African regions overcome with malaria. Many others are a part of the education program, and some have even been published.

Then, there is Constructing Our Future.

Constructing Our Future is a non-profit, founded by a group of incarcerated women, with the help of some volunteers and local partners, like Andrew Falk and Sagamore Institute. Their mission is to find employment, education and housing for post incarcerated women while also providing service to the community by cleaning up the abandoned home problem in Marion County. Abandoned homes are breeding grounds for rape and sex trafficking rings, and reducing the number of these homes will drastically impact these violent crimes. For more on Constructing Our Future, please visit the website, the foundation of which was worked on by a group of Marian University’s Marian’s Adult Programs’ business technology students.

Jim Huntington, a Marian University MAP graduate of May 2017, completed an internship with Constructing Our Future. This included calling on others in the community to volunteer time and resources and visiting the women out at the prison. Jim said his eyes were opened wide, and he views the women and prison population much differently than he had prior to his experience (Huntington, 2017):

I met a group of women who have made mistakes, like we all have…[and] found the women have a passion and drive to improve their lives for themselves and their families. They were all very pleasant and interested in mining any information I could give them that would help them obtain their goals… The women in themselves are amazing and driven. They hold themselves accountable for past mistakes and have the desire to succeed.

Not many students have the opportunity to work with organizations and populations that make a real impact on community and society. Marian’s Franciscan values sanction opportunities like this for Jim and other students to contribute such valuable time to their community and those who will be reentering our community soon.

Arguably, not everyone inside the gates may deserve opportunity; however, not everyone on the outside does either. The women at IWP are people who made mistakes. They have names. They have fears. They cry. They have regret. They have children who need them. They have dreams and ideas. They miss birthdays, holidays and funerals. They long for a second chance outside the gates, and they are some of the most appreciative, hardest working people I have ever met.

With the help of caring citizens, like Jim, and organizations, like Constructing Our Future, hopefully society will be more accommodating of re-entry and not continue to contribute to the expendable. I would encourage anyone who cares about their whole community, which includes IWP inmates who deserve a healthy re-entry plan, to partner with nonprofits to see how you can help. Education is an important tool to help them reenter society, and working with the women and teaching in the education program has changed my life. I am truly grateful.

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