Idaho nonprofit and state programs are key to reentry process, former prisoners say
Idaho has a higher incarceration rate than any democratic nation, and it incarcerates more women than any other state. But eventually, most Idaho prisoners will leave prison and navigate the reentry process.
Nonprofit programs and state programs are the key to a person’s success after getting released from prison, former prisoner Mark Renick told the Idaho Capital Sun.
Renick, who was incarcerated in Idaho for seven years for a robbery offense, was released from prison in 2010 and placed on parole for seven years until 2017.
After his release, Renick enrolled in graduate school and received his master’s degree in social work from Northwest Nazarene University. Rennick’s experience in the prison system led him to start a small nonprofit to help formerly incarcerated people navigate the reentry process, and he eventually merged his organization with St. Vincent de Paul’s reentry program in Boise.
Renick now works as the program manager for reentry services at St. Vincent de Paul in Boise, whose services provide resources to formerly incarcerated people who do not have family support. His team primarily consists of formerly incarcerated people.
Renick lived in the maximum security prison in Kuna for five out of the seven years that he was incarcerated. On the day of his release 13 years ago, Renick said he felt stressed and anxious.
“I’d been away from the world for seven years, and the world changed a lot in those years,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to blend into it, or what I was going to do.”
He and his staff regularly pick up people from prison and assist them on their first day to find immediate needs such as clothing, food, bus passes, cell phone access and transitional housing.
“A majority of the people have made some mistakes, and families or loved ones tend to give up on them,” Renick said. “And so increasingly, they’re left with somebody like me to help pick them up.”
Renick said that because many people’s sentences are indeterminate, meaning a court establishes a minimum and maximum term of imprisonment, it is common that family members estrange their incarcerated relatives.
He said he became estranged from his own family while in prison.
“I know for me, I lost my family because they didn’t know when I was going to get out,” he said. “I was sentenced to 20 years, with seven of it fixed, so I didn’t know whether I’d come out in seven or 20 years. My wife was quick to divorce me and estrange me from my two kids.”
Reentry begins on the first day in prison
Reentry, or the process of transitioning back into the community after living in prison, is the focus of many state and nonprofit programs who aim to prevent former prisoners from reoffending.
Idaho Department of Correction spokesperson Jeff Ray told the Idaho Capital Sun that 98% of the state’s incarcerated population will eventually be released from prison and undergo the reentry process.
Ray said the reentry process begins on a resident’s first day in correctional custody, and residents undergo extensive testing upon their arrival to determine their educational and treatment needs that guide decisions about where they will be incarcerated and the programs they will be offered.
“Virtually every aspect of the IDOC’s operation is in support of reentry,” Ray said. “Our job is to help them develop the skills they will need to succeed as law-abiding citizens.”
According to data from IDOC, 3,890 men and 1,086 women were released from state custody in 2022.
Ray said IDOC programs are meant to keep a resident from reoffending. The programs include mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and other behavioral health programs.
Additionally, IDOC offers educational programs and vocational training so residents can prepare for future employment. Ray said residents with records of good behavior can also learn how to shoot and edit video, and they can take college-level classes to earn credits toward a degree.
Ray said IDOC provides living and work opportunities for residents in custody to prepare for their release.
“We know the transition from the controlled environment of prison back to the community can be stressful,” Ray said. “That’s why we are in the process of opening a 152-bed housing unit for men at South Idaho Correctional Institution that will give residents opportunities to practice the basic life skills they will need to succeed on their own.”
IDOC also operates five community reentry centers that allow residents in custody to get jobs and save money to help fund their transition back to society.
During fiscal year 2023 (July 2022-June 2023), the state provided $9.3 million to IDOC community reentry centers and more than $46.6 million for probation and parole services.
“Our work does not end when a resident is released,” Ray said. “Those who are released on parole are assigned a parole officer who does much more than make sure their client is following the rules. Officers are trained to watch for the warning signs that a person is at risk of recidivating and connect them with the help they need to get back on track.”
Checking the box and clothing: Reentry workers discuss challenges for former prisoners
One of the biggest challenges formerly incarcerated people face is finding a job, Renick said.
Renick worked as a librarian during his time at the maximum security prison, and he was hopeful he could find a job using his job skills after he was released. Despite applying more than 10 times to a librarian position at a local Boise library, he said he believes having to check the box that indicated he was a felon led potential employers to reject his applications.
“I never got an interview,” he said. “I kept applying because I wanted to get to the interview process, so that’s subtle discrimination.”
Tim Leigh, the reentry career development manager at St. Vincent de Paul in Boise, said many businesses refuse to hire formerly incarcerated people without offering them an opportunity to explain their conviction.
“These people come out with skills and training, and a lot of the time they want to be successful and they work really hard if given an opportunity,” he said.
Leigh previously worked for the Idaho Department of Labor for 20 years managing reentry programs. Before retiring in May 2022, Leigh was working for the Idaho Department of Correction as a reentry manager. In his new role in his retirement, Leigh assists residents at Idaho prisons and people leaving prison with employment assistance such as resume writing, career counseling and interview guidance.
Leigh said he hopes employers will see that many formerly incarcerated people want to do well in their work and are determined to improve their situation.
Leigh said that another struggle with finding employment during the reentry process is having appropriate clothing to wear after getting released from prison.
“A lot of people when they come out of prison, many of them literally walk out with the clothes on their back and that’s all they have,” he said. “If you’ve been incarcerated for a period of time, you wear prison clothes and you don’t have any regular, civilian clothes.”
That’s where Idaho State Correctional Center staff, located in Kuna, stepped in to open a clothing closet for people leaving prison.
Christine Diaz is a case manager at the correctional center who volunteered to collect clothing donations from friends, family and church members to offer free clothing to correctional residents.
“I love seeing them be able to choose their own clothing and walk out of here looking like neighbors instead of inmates. I love seeing the smiles on their faces as they leave dressed in their own sense of style,” Diaz said in an IDOC news release.
Jessica Pullin, who was released from the Idaho correctional system for drug-related offenses in December 2022, said she left prison with just two boxes filled with prison clothing and commissary food.
While clothing was one barrier, Pullin said finding a job was a difficult process despite her college and work experience.
“When I got out, a (parole officer) was like, ‘OK you need a job within two weeks or I will violate you,’” she said. “I applied to a call center thinking this is the most basic job, because I have a bachelor’s degree and over 10 years of management experience.”
Pullin said she made it far into the hiring process even after disclosing her felony, but on the last day of the two weeks, the company told her she was ineligible to work there because she did not pass the background check.
“That was a huge disappointment, and it definitely takes a hit on everything that you’ve worked hard for to try to better your life,” she said.
Securing housing is a top challenge for former prisoners
In addition to finding a job, formerly incarcerated people experience difficulties securing housing, Leigh and Renick said.
Leigh said he understands the apprehension from property management workers who deny a person a place to live because they have a history with violent crime, domestic or sexual offenses, but that is not the case for many of his clients.
“If you’ve got an addiction, a DUI, or something that’s non-violent and non-sexual, they’re not given that opportunity,” he said. “It’s really sad because property management will take your money, but at the same time they’re not going to give you the opportunity to live there.”
In Pullin’s case, she was able to save enough money to secure an apartment after serving part of her sentence at a community reentry center.
She said the opportunity to work while finishing her sentence played a vital role to her reentry process.
“I had the absolute best reentry process that I could have,” she said. “I was 100% set up for success. I did the reentry center work release program and the community custody extended release. All those baby steps put me in the most amazing situation, and I believe if everyone was given that opportunity, our recidivism rate would go down tremendously.”
However, her savings did not prepare her for the high living costs she would bear because of her conviction.
Pullin told the Idaho Capital Sun that she had saved enough money to secure an apartment, but she had to pay three times the regular deposit amount to secure her apartment and currently pays double the amount as her coworkers living in the same complex.
“I was able to do it because I did have a sum of money from my time under work-release, but as far as people who are coming out without that opportunity, I don’t know how anyone would do it,” she said in a phone interview.
‘Change is possible’: Former prisoner talks goals to reunite with family
Pullin said getting released from prison meant she had to pack her entire four years into two boxes.
“It is the most overwhelming feeling that you can go through,” she said in a phone interview. “You have all these emotions and excitement and then all of a sudden everything turns to fear really fast and a lot of anxiety.”
Pullin said her mother stayed supportive of her despite her drug addiction and conviction, but one year before she was released, her mother died from an aggressive cancer. Pullin said she is estranged from her father who has a guardianship over her daughter.
Since her imprisonment, Pullin said she has been sober for more than four years and hopes to reunite with her daughter who was 3-years-old when she was incarcerated.
“To people reentering society, I would say just be as strong as you can and don’t give up,” she said. “And to people around those who are reentering into society, just don’t give up on them. Change is possible.”