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According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, about 19,000 people are released from Missouri prisons every year.
The Missouri Department of Corrections releases people without any form of identification or assistance in obtaining an ID, birth certificate, Social Security Card or driver’s license. If a person doesn’t have any of these important documents, they likely can’t get a job or housing.
This is just one of many barriers people face as they attempt to start their lives over after being released from prison.
To help the public better understand the challenges and perhaps seek solutions, Hand Up is hosting a Reentry Simulation event from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, at the National Avenue Christian Church in Springfield. This is a free event. RSVP on the Facebook event page.
Participants will be assigned roles to play — either a fictional person who’s recently released from prison, or perhaps their parole officer, a prospective employer or the lady who works at the Social Security office.
“Attendees will be given a card as an identifier that will tell them perhaps, ‘You’re a 38-year-old female who’s not seen her children in five years and you’re coming out of the criminal justice system,’” explained Lynda Nickel, a former chief of mental health for the Missouri State Penitentiary and Department of Corrections, and co-founder of Hand Up.
Hand Up is a program of National Avenue Christian Church’s Justice Collaborative initiative. Hand Up provides funds to help people getting out of prison and have no support. Typically, the funds are used to pay for IDs and other documents, but sometimes it can be for necessities like vehicle repairs or steel-toed boots for work.
Nickel co-founded Hand Up a few years ago with a man named Thom Goodfellow, who died in 2019.
Goodfellow was released from the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield in 2016. He found a new “family” within the congregations at National Avenue Christian Church.
According to Nickel, Goodfellow had a master’s degree in social work and came from a prominent family. Despite that, when Goodfellow was released from prison, he faced very difficult challenges in getting his Social Security Disability application lined out — which inspired Goodfellow and Nickel to found Hand Up.
“One of the things that Hand Up does is help with getting individuals copies of birth certificates,” Nickel said. “We normally think that would be a very easy task. But if you’re incarcerated in the state of Missouri, but you were born in the state of — let’s say New Mexico — you have to apply for that and there is a cost.
“And then the next problem or hurdle would possibly be you can’t get an ID without a birth certificate,” Nickel continued. “It starts at a very basic level that many of us don’t understand.”
Other challenges include former inmates not being able to get into housing because they don’t have references or rental histories, coupled with their criminal backgrounds, Nickel said. It can be difficult for people who have been in prison to get jobs. Even navigating and understanding today’s technology and the internet is tough for someone who’s been behind bars for any length of time.
“The reality of the situation is how do you integrate into a very fast-paced, technology-driven society that you have not been a part of and now there are black marks on your history,” Nickel said. “It is extremely difficult.”
Nickel hopes the Reentry Simulation will give participants a greater understanding of the difficulties former prisoners face when they attempt to reenter society.
“I am the first to understand that people are incarcerated for a reason,” Nickel said. “I’m familiar with the state of Missouri. We don’t do a good job with the words ‘rehabilitation and reintegration.’”
Learn more about the Hand Up program and the Reentry Simulation, visit National Avenue Christian Church’s website.