Fourth in a series

By Mike Whittlesey

The challenges faced by offenders after being released from prison is not an issue the state of Iowa confronts alone. There are more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. Nearly all of them will be released at some point in the future. There are a number of complex challenges awaiting people who are returning to life outside of prison walls. Among them:

Mental Health – Researchers found that the rates of serious mental disorders in jail populations are three to six times higher than that of the general public.
Substance Abuse – According to a survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about half of the people in state and federal prisons had substance use disorders.
Housing – A national survey found that 15 percent of the people in jail were homeless in the year prior to their incarceration, up to 11 times more than the estimate for the general population.
Education and Employment – Approximately 40 percent of the people incarcerated lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Employment rates for those in prison are low, often because of limited education, physical or mental health issues or other challenges. A criminal record can make finding a job even more difficult upon release.

The challenge of maintaining safe communities while managing the successful reentry of convicted felons and other individuals who have served time in prison is a conundrum, one with costly implications for communities throughout the United States.

Successful reentry into society is heavily dependent upon finding a job and a place to live, as illustrated by a study of the 262,000 offenders released from federal prisons between 2002 and 2006. Ninety-three percent of those who were able to gain employment during the entirety of their supervised release were able to successfully reintegrate back into society and not return to prison. Conversely, fifty percent of those who could not find employment committed a new crime or violated the terms of their release and were sent back to prison.

Many companies use background checks in their hiring decisions. While certain convictions automatically ban candidates from consideration of some jobs, either by law or by company policy, a large number of ex-convicts find the job market very unforgiving for those convicted of a crime. In response to this challenge, 31 states have enacted “ban the box” legislation that prohibits questions about criminal conviction history on job applications for public and/or private employers. At this time, the state of Iowa has no such provision in place.

Another factor hindering job possibilities for those leaving prison is education. Numerous studies conducted over time have confirmed the more education an incarcerated person receives, the less likely a return trip to prison will be.

Contracting with state community colleges, the Iowa Department of Corrections offers a variety of educational programs for its inmates. During the 2018 fiscal year, 287 incarcerated individuals earned their high school equivalency diploma, 250 completed literacy programs, and another five earned their High School Diploma. Recognizing the importance of employability for those exiting the prison system, the IDOC has partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor to offer 22 registered apprenticeship programs. These include: Landscape Technician, Housekeeper (Commercial, Residential or Industrial), Cook (any industry), Maintenance Repairer (Building), Screen Printer, Upholsterer, Materials Coordinator, Computer Operator, Welder, Baker, Painter Construction, Sewing Machine Repair, Cabinet Maker, Electrician, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic, Plumber, Fabricator Assembler Metal Production, Powder Coating Technician, Peer Specialist, Office Manager, Job Printer, and Carpenter. These programs can range in length from one to four years to complete.
The IDOC also collaborates with colleges, manufacturers, labor unions and other community and state agencies to train incarcerated individuals for skilled jobs in high demand. In 2018, IDOC implemented a learning management system that can provide online training needed for today’s workforce.

Because many individuals exiting prison have limited work experience and/or a history of low income, housing is another important factor that impacts recidivism rates. According to, national statistics indicate one in five people leaving prison will become homeless. Why?

A number of factors are cited. Many leaving prison simply lack the financial resources to purchase or rent a home in the private market. Since 1975, federal regulations have instructed public housing authorities to consider the criminal history of applicants for public housing, as it relates to criminal acts that could affect the well-being of other tenants. Because of that reason, many have adopted blanket policies that reject applicants with a criminal history. Federal law also mandates a public housing ban for people who have been convicted of certain crimes. The production of methamphetamines is one example.

Research data regarding recidivism rates indicate another barrier that can impede successful reentry- voting rights. A 2011 report by the Florida Parole Commission, for example, noted the three year recidivism rate on all released inmates was 33.1 percent, compared to 11 percent for those offenders who were allowed to vote after their civil rights were restored. Iowa and Kentucky are the only states that permanently ban a felon’s right to vote unless restored by the governor or president.

Given the human and financial costs associated with high recidivism rates, Congress passed the Second Chance Act in 2008. With broad support and backing from leaders in law enforcement, courts and behavioral health specialists, the Second Chance Act is a federal investment aimed at increasing public safety, reducing recidivism rates, as well as the corrections costs for state and local governments. The bill authorized up to $165 million in federal grants to state and local governments to fund initiatives and programs that address these goals. Funded by the Office of Justice Programs, more than 840 Second Chance Act grant awards have been made to government agencies since 2009, including the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC).

As a result of a $3 million grant, IDOC has utilized this funding to implement the Statewide Recidivism Reduction Strategy (SRR). A collaborative effort aimed at systemic, sustainable, long-term change, the goal of SRR is to contribute to safer communities through the implementation of recidivism reduction strategies. The use of training, allocation of human resources and workload analysis, as well as the evaluation of re-entry practices all contribute to a continuous quality improvement model throughout the system, with support from the Governor’s office, state and local agencies, community-based corrections and the state’s prisons.

The IDOC has been implementing SRR strategies over the course of four years. Implementation of a number of these strategies continues, even after funding for the grant expired last year.

Last year, a dashboard was created to assist the IDOC with data-driven decision making. Because the dashboard measures various practices and strategies designed to improve offender outcomes, IDOC will be able to use this data to set goals and work to increase the department’s performance in the future.

Other work in the past year focused on improving proficiency with risk-assessment tools. These tools allow IDOC to better target appropriate resources and interventions for higher risk individuals.

The department also completed evidence-based job competencies for its correctional, probation and residential officers, correctional counselors and frontline supervisors. By embedding evidence-based knowledge, skills and abilities into job descriptions, hiring practices and evaluations, the IDOC believes demonstration of the 200+ competencies that have been identified will ultimately have a positive impact on recidivism rates.

IDOC Director Jerry Bartruff acknowledged the challenging nature of the effort to affect long-term change in the FY2018 Annual Report, stating, “Importantly, the vast changes made statewide throughout the past several years will take time to impact recidivism.”

The Iowa Department of Corrections defines the recidivism rate as the percent of offenders released from prison or work release who returned to prison within three years. The releases that the IDOC tracks for this statistic include paroles, discharges due to the end of sentence and sex offenders released to special sentence supervision. The department further differentiates recidivism by the reason for prison returns; new convictions resulting in a prison sentence as compared to technical returns, which account for all other reasons. Because recidivism rates are calculated over a three year tracking period, the most current year’s rate, 36.0% in 2018, describes recidivism for individuals who were released prison in 2015. This, perhaps, explains in part why recidivism rates in Iowa have continued to creep upward, despite the systemic changes initiated by the IDOC. Recent statistics are tied to prison releases made in the years before Statewide Recidivism Reduction Strategy practices were fully implemented.

One area the Department of Corrections can point to as a sign of positive gain is the data on recidivism rates by race. After many years where African-American offenders had a much higher recidivism rate than Caucasians, recent statistics show a considerable narrowing of that gap to the point where they are now nearly identical. IDOC officials credit the focused reentry work being done in Des Moines and Waterloo, where nearly half of the state’s African-American offenders are supervised. Over a ten year period, the state has seen a significant reduction in the African-American recidivism rate as a result of the work being done in those two metropolitan areas.

With more than one in three inmates making a return trip to prison within three years of their release, there is clearly much work still left to be done to reduce Iowa recidivism rates. Meanwhile, Iowa policy makers have the unenviable job of crafting laws that balance the need to keep the public safe at a cost that will not overburden the state’s ability to finance the challenging work entrusted to the Department of Corrections. As difficult as it is to solve complex issues related to public safety, there are simple steps that can be taken locally to help keep communities safer.

Next week: What does the job of public safety look like in La Porte City? A conversation with Police Chief Chris Brecher…