Prisoner Reentry – Family and Friends of Inmates

Prisoner Reentry 4Purpose

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 awareness of and access to services and increased communication between service providers would allow these groups to strengthen their services.  Stronger services would lead to more positive reentry outcomes.  The Omaha community would grow stronger by reducing unemployment and recidivism and fortifying families.

Goal

We will convene a meeting of organizations and agencies that work on prisoner reentry in Douglas County.  Participants will have a chance to identify one or more actions the group wants to work on, who they will work with, and how to proceed.

The Meeting

Pre-Meeting

Looking back at our original Purpose and Goal, our plans changed drastically.  We entered an exploratory phase to figure out what we could facilitate.  We talked to our library director, Gary Wasdin, who gave us additional contacts and confirmed that these conversations were important for Omaha.  After attending an Empowerment Network 360 (360) meeting, Deirdre Routt made us aware of the Douglas County Life After Lock-Up project to put together a directory of services for those reentering society.  The Life After Lockup people were supposed to present at the next 360 meeting which we attended.  However their presentation was rescheduled due to the COPS shooting incident and other events.  Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh finally found a contact for a person responsible for the grant.  She then sent an email inquiry asking if the group would like to have their meeting facilitated before the end of October.  Joanne attended the 360 meeting where they presented information about their project and talked to them about the possibilities.  They said that Douglas County Corrections was undergoing accreditation.  All their focus would be on finishing the accreditation process until November 1st.  Since this was after our Pilot Project 3 deadline, we were back to square one.

Prisoner Reentry 6At an earlier 360 meeting Joanne had met Mary Lou Ruh who belonged to Family and Friends of Inmates (FFI).  Mary Lou had a passion for juvenile lifers and had been corresponding with one for several years.  During the Pilot Project 2 Reentry exploratory phase, Teela Michels from Compassion in Action had told Joanne and Mark Sorensen that FFI would be a good group to facilitate.  Mary Lou gave Joanne the name and number of Mary Ann Beckman, the woman who started FFI.

Prisoner Reentry 5When Matt Couch, Maggie Rasmussen and Joanne had their next weekly meeting, they called Mary Ann.  She came to the library personally to meet with us within 30 minutes!  Mary Ann brought brochures and told us about FFI’s history and what they did.  She started FFI about 20 years ago as a support group because her son was an inmate.  Mary Ann pushed us to contact Jeannie Bates from CrossOver Prison Ministries, the umbrella organization that eventually enveloped FFI.  Matt followed up with Jeannie to talk about what we could do with creative problem solving.  Although Jeannie talked about their organizational needs, she thought it would be more helpful to facilitate FFI.  They would need sustained leadership if Mary Ann and her husband Mel could no longer be the organization’s backbone.  The Beckman’s daughter, a single mother of a 9 year old child, is struggling with cancer.  Mary Ann and Mel’s focus is increasingly on their daughter’s situation.

We had a few more conversations with Mary Ann.  She asked us to propose something that she could present to her board.  We told her about some activities that would get the group thinking about their future.  Mary Ann said she couldn’t promise anything.  After reporting that the Board reception was positive, Mary Ann figured out the best time for this facilitated meeting.  She proposed that the FFI membership stay after their monthly meeting on October 25, 2014 for a facilitated discussion at noon.  Mary Ann would bring sandwiches, Joanne offered to bring cookies, and Matt agreed to bring water.

This date worked for everyone except Maggie who had a Lights on after School event at University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO).  We decided that Matt and Joanne could facilitate without Maggie.  Since Matt had missed out on Pilot Project 2, he volunteered to do most of the facilitation while Joanne did the introduction and closing activities.

We worked hard on our scripted agenda and tweaked our activities.  After practicing our scripted agenda, we refined it further.  Since we found it hard to facilitate with only Maggie as our “group”, we recommend practicing with another FIT team.  Our plan included an icebreaker where members introduced their partner, their “passion” for FFI, and what made FFI “successful”; the Elevator Pitch from Game Storming to figure out what they do for whom; and Vision Weaving and Story Weaving / Story Spine activities from Training to Imagine to create a vision where FFI would be in 5 years.

Shortly before the meeting Cheryl Gould advised us to not let the structure of the meeting get in the way of a good conversation.  She suggested language that would encourage the participants to work towards a consensus about action steps.  Cheryl felt this was better approach instead of trying to build consensus with a specific exercise like dot voting.

Meeting

The meeting went great with nine participants!  It was held in a small, hot room with tables arranged in an O shape.  We had envisioned participants sitting in a circle so we had to make sure the tables weren’t obstacles to communication.  We passed out the community survey as the participants got food.  It was a little awkward to immediately ask folks to do the survey.  One participant exclaimed, “I’m not answering that question.”

One of the most interesting outcomes of asking participants to describe what makes them passionate about FFI and what makes FFI successful was that folks bring a diversity of experiences and perspectives but have a shared purpose.  The activity also started the discussion on a positive note.

Although we intended to do a quick brainstorm for the Elevator Pitch activity, the participants started expressing hopes and visions when we asked a simple question about FFI’s target customer.  Because they were so eager, our first two activities ran long.  We decided to skip the Vision Weaving activity.  Since the participants had already started talking about their visions, it was a natural progression to the Story Spine activity.  It was extremely powerful to hear each other’s stories about FFI in five years.   Participants acknowledged that one great challenge is that the organization cannot continue to rely so heavily on Mary Ann and Mel.

We used these stories to create a list of possible action steps.  A challenge from the facilitation standpoint is that the participants already saw the need for someone (or multiple some ones) to take on greater leadership roles although no one has done so.  We encouraged the group to identify specific steps that might move them towards that outcome.   The group then identified immediate next steps.  One step was for Mary Ann and Mel to list what they do and how they do it.  Some participants volunteered to take on some co-coordinator responsibilities immediately.  The best result was that participants established a specific timeline for their steps.   Mary Ann will bring a list of duties to their November meeting.  Other group members will take on new responsibilities in January 2015.

Interesting Observations and Stories

One participant stated that you think you are getting into FFI to help someone else but find that it’s actually more rewarding for yourself.

Share information, feelings and just the fact that you have a loved one who is incarcerated.  You also have something to hold onto in the context of hurtful words in letters to the editor (Public Pulse in the Omaha World Herald).

It came out that some group members may be reluctant to take on leadership roles because they don’t know how.  There is a need for leadership development and/or training in specific tasks.

People get a chance to practice telling their story about their family member.  Once they share their story with someone others are willing to share about their family members who are/were inmates.

The group talked about whether their current meeting time (10:00 a.m. on the 4th Saturday of the month) is the best time.

Posted by Matt Couch, Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh, and Maggie Rasmussen, Facilitators-in Training

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