After 15 years of working inside correctional facilities for women in Ohio, Deborah Simmons was well acquainted with the challenges parolees face after serving their time.
“They can’t survive. They can’t get jobs,” Simmons said. “They are going to face all kinds of barriers.”
When Simmons founded The Reentry Initiative in Longmont three years ago, she wanted to address those issues and help women formerly incarcerated in Denver’s correctional facility have the skills and support to be self-sufficient, while subsequently reducing recidivism rates.
Wednesday night people had an opportunity to learn about Simmons’ program as The Reentry Initiative welcomed the community to an open house and announced a new partnership with Recovery Café. Both nonprofits are housed in Central Presbyterian Church, 402 Kimbark St. Recovery Café helps those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues using a community-based approach.
Commemorating the partnership Wednesday, Leigh Larson, the program manager for Recovery Café, said she believed both programs will have more power working together.
“We can combine forces to make sure that these women stay safe, sober and have the resources they need to thrive,” Larson said.
For The Reentry Initiative, the open house also marked several important milestones and new developments. This month, the program celebrated its third anniversary and a recently awarded five-year Work & Gain Education & Employment Skills, or WAGEES, Project grant.
With roughly 825 people released from prison each month across the state, according to Reentry Initiative, local programs can be paramount to helping parolees get back on their feet.
The Reentry Initiative works by connecting with the women in Denver’s correctional facility six months before their release. A risk assessment helps the nonprofit identify up to 12 women every six months to be enrolled. Using evidence-based curriculum developed by the University of Cincinnati Research Institute, those involved learn the skills they will need to thrive once released. Once on parole, the program continues its work in its post-release program, which can work with the women for up to three years to help them reacclimate to society.
“They are learning how to be in today’s environment: How to use a cellphone, how to use a computer, how to use a bus system, how to do a job interview and address the fact that they have been incarcerated,” Simmons said.
Hannah Astorga, who helps manage Reentry Initiative programs echoed that sentiment.
“No one else is doing what we are doing with this continuum of care from inside to outside (the prison),” Astorga said. “Our goal is to find them long-term success.”
Since the program’s inception, Emily Kleeman, The Reentry Initiative executive director, said about 16 women have graduated from prerelease and close to 25 have graduated from the post-release program.
Deniz Dimler , a Naropa University student and Reentry Initiative intern, has seen how the program has transformed lives. For the past year, Dimler has worked with women inside the prison in the months leading up to their release.
“They really build a community while they are in the program,” Dimler said. “When we start working on a transitional plans, they start to trust somebody else and it’s a big deal for them to trust somebody and believe that we would actually be there upon release.”
Finding employment and housing are among the barriers felons face when released from prison. Almost 50% of women released from prison will resort to sleeping in an emergency shelter, while 23% will end up sleeping on the street, according to The Reentry Initiative website.
Looking ahead, Simmons said she hopes to raise enough money to open a second living facility for women. The program currently has an apartment in Longmont called, the TRI House, which provides a home to four women. Those not in the apartment can get a referral for safe and sober housing. The program also helps women to cover the cost of rent for a month.
This month, Reentry Initiative also began helping men who are released on parole, though Simmons said women will still be the primary focus. Simmons said the program chose to target women because there are few local programs available to them.
Simmons commended Central Presbyterian Church for offering support and a home for the program and United Church of Christ of Longmont for being a partner. She cited other programs in Longmont also striving to change their city for the better.
“This is such a progressive place,” Simmons said. “It is a sign of progress here in the community.”