Prisoner Reentry – Cooperative Homecoming

Prisoner Reentry 1Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh, Megan Klein-Hewett, and I conducted a facilitated discussion on prisoner reentry at the Benson Branch Library on Thursday, April 10, 2014.  Our project proposal describes the meeting’s purpose and goal:

Nebraska state prisons are 53% over capacity.  Proposed legislation to lessen this overcrowding would result in more former convicts reentering the community.  While many groups are working to address the impact and needs of ex-inmates, there is no nexus for reentry information and services.  Uniform access to services and increased communication between service providers will lessen the duplication of services and allow service providers to strengthen their services, leading to more positive reentry outcomes.  This will strengthen the Omaha community by reducing unemployment and recidivism and strengthening families.

We will identify and convene a meeting of organizations and government agencies already working on prisoner reentry in Douglas County.  The meeting will provide these organizations an opportunity to inventory their current activities, identify shared problems and needs, and define barriers limiting ex-inmates’ access to, or use of, their services.

One of the most controversial elements of our entire project was the purpose statement!  Early in the process and anxious about our real and perceived status as newcomers on reentry issues, we brought our proposal to a small group of the community’s most established stakeholders.  We were rebuffed gently but firmly from the perspective that this sort of inter-provider networking was already going on.  The group also said we showed a lack of knowledge about the topic. Accepting that critique in a positive way, being OK that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and moving forward based on an awareness that there were some opportunities for better information sharing outside that core group was the big challenge the first month of our project.

The research and recruitment phase of the project was rewarded with a truly awesome group of attendees.  24 representatives from reentry service providers attended from a pool of 28 positive RSVPs.  The group was highly positive, focused, and diverse.  We agree that Joanne deserves the lion’s share of the credit for networking personally with prospective attendees through community meetings.

The meeting both rewarded and challenged our planning.  Despite practice sessions and intensive work with our scripted agenda, we didn’t quite master time.  Some activities ran longer than intended, some were condensed, and the ending was a bit rushed.  However, we should weigh our impressions against the feedback of the group.  Thoughts from our Plus/Delta evaluation and follow-up responses included “I attend a lot of meetings on topics related to reentry, and this was by far one of the most well planned, executed, and productive.”; “The process for the meeting felt very smooth.”; and “The organization of the event and activities was very conducive to interacting with each other.”  Megan was our anchor here.  She was attentive to detail and highly aware of time.  Her facilitation of the final discussion phase (identifying group priorities and next steps toward problem solving) was masterful in its gentle but firm management to end the meeting on time.  We hadn’t planned on greeting people as they came into the library.   However, the meeting room’s emergency exit looks like the main entrance.  Joanne positioned herself where she could greet attendees with a smile and guide them inside.  This small action set a warm and welcoming tone for the meeting’s start.Prisoner Reentry 2

The group generated some great insights.  The sentence that’s become part of my 30 second recap of the meeting came from the representatives from Release Ministries and Midlands Mentoring Partnership.  When introduced, one said to the other, “How many times have I emailed you and we’ve never met?”  Two participants observed that it was good to know “everyone there was facing the same problems and obstacles though they were working with different aspects of the population.”  Another captured the energy and enthusiasm of the group by saying “everyone was here because they want to see change and are willing to work for change.”  During our discussion of barriers to service, one participant broached the need for honest discussion about the impact of social inequality and racial injustice on prison populations.  I was really impressed how this “elephant in the room” conversation played out.  I was proud of the person for raising the issue.  I was also proud how the group listened, responded affirmatively, offered input, and then moved forward with the discussion.  Structural issues of race and social justice were neither disregarded nor derailed the discussion.  They were placed in context with other barriers facing these organizations and their clients as the group moved on to discuss priorities for potential solutions.

Prisoner Reentry 3Speaking of potential solutions, the group’s discussion of shared issues and assessment of priorities highlighted rules, regulations, and policy as the barrier to service most worthy of immediate attention.  They were able to identify many of the parties they would need to bring to the table to move forward productively.  These parties ranged from lawmakers to reentering prisoners willing and able to share their stories.  The group expressed interest in meeting again with these additional voices involved.

The group was not afraid to offer constructive feedback to us either.  The middle of our meeting focused heavily on barriers to service.  At one point an attendee said aloud, “Wow, this is feeling really negative, can we do something to lighten up a bit?”  We did our best to respond with a change of activities and an impromptu cookie break.  In comments after the meeting and in follow-up responses, a few attendees did share they felt the purpose of the event was unclear or that we could have been more clear in communicating the purpose.  Several voiced excitement at the prospect of future meetings.  One person voiced disappointment because they had correctly interpreted that the meeting wasn’t planned to transition directly into ongoing work.

We were very happy to have worked in a group of three on this project.  We were able to rely on one another for different aspects of this project and play to our strengths – Megan’s organizational skills, Joanne’s interpersonal and networking skills, and Mark’s ability to work independently and comfortably off-script in a crowd.  During the meeting we struck a sound balance between the roles we needed to play for a shared facilitation and the skills that each of us could most naturally deploy in a stressful situation. While a strengths assessment was not used intentionally during the team formation, we were fortunate to have an extremely well-balanced skill set for a highly functioning work group.

It was a privilege to bring together agencies working on such a crucial and highly charged issue.  It is our hope that the connections they made and the shared issues and priorities they discussed will lay the groundwork for a stronger community with more successful reentry outcomes.

Posted by Mark Sorensen

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