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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Helping ex-cons find their way home
Local program gets impressive results building a support network
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Kristina Wuolle: 'It kind of gives you hope.'
Kristina Wuolle: 'It kind of gives you hope.'
Credit:James T. Spartz

For much of her life, Kristina Wuolle has been in and out of trouble with the law. The 32-year-old mother of three was released from prison last July, after serving two years on a forgery charge. She has since set out to move beyond the mistakes of her past.

"It took a long time for it to go away," she says of her craving for drugs, which has led her to retail theft, passing bad checks, evictions and motor-vehicle violations. "But I really have no desire for that anymore."

Part of what has helped Wuolle succeed is an innovative Dane County program called Journey Home, run by Madison-area Urban Ministries (MUM) and funded by United Way of Dane County and the state Department of Corrections. The program, launched last year, grew out of legislation sponsored by Rep. Marc Pocan (D-Madison) as a way to provide much needed assistance to ex-offenders.

Madison Police Chief Noble Wray has cited Journey Home as the kind of program that could help reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, especially among racial minorities. Wray is the co-chair of a state task force charged with making recommendations to the governor on this issue.

For Wuolle, like other ex-cons, getting back on her feet means having a job, a place to live and support she can count on. Journey Home has helped provide all three.

The program's small staff, working out of an office at the Villager Mall on South Park Street, found Wuolle a third-shift LTE job making mousetraps. After gaining some work experience, she was able to move into a permanent daytime position. She can now collect benefits while building a solid post-incarceration work history.

Finding an employer or a landlord who can look past a criminal record is a tall order. MUM now has about 40 employers willing to interview ex-cons. And Rev. Everett Mitchell, the group's associate director, says the list of interested employers is "growing every day."

As an incentive to hire ex-offenders, a federal program offers bonds that act as a sort of business insurance policy against employee dishonesty. These are available at no cost to employers or employees.

MUM is now helping Wuolle find an apartment big enough for her and her kids, who have been staying at their grandmother's. Wuolle also takes part in two MUM programs: a discussion group for ex-cons called Voices Beyond Bars, and a network of community volunteers called Circle of Support.

"It's very helpful," says Wuolle of Voices Beyond Bars, which meets every Tuesday evening at the MUM office. "It kind of gives you hope. There are people who have been out [of prison] for 10 or 15 years and they still come for support and to give support. If they can do it...."

Social support - peers who can listen and give advice - is integral to offender reintegration. For Wuolle, this comes in part from her Narcotics Anonymous group, especially her mentor: "That's where I turn when I need somebody to talk to."

MUM, a nonprofit service and advocacy group, has since 1974 tackled a range of social justice issues: race and racism, poverty, homelessness and children of incarcerated parents. Journey Home fits nicely under the group's altruistic umbrella.

"It just turns out, not surprisingly, people coming out of prison is where all of those issues converge," says MUM executive director Linda Ketchum.

In 1999, MUM held its first returning-prisoner simulation to demonstrate through role-playing some of the barriers ex-offenders encounter. This led to a heightened awareness of rising incarceration rates, especially among minority and lower-income populations.

"Whatever you think of the [formerly incarcerated] population," says Deedra Atkinson of United Way of Dane County, "they are coming home, and they'll become your neighbors."

Helping ex-cons succeed has other benefits. Kids who have a parent in jail are twice as likely to end up behind bars themselves. By establishing a stable home and family environment, parents can model more appropriate social behaviors.

In 2006, MUM projects received about $135,000 in funding from United Way and the state Department of Corrections. That allowed the group to serve 331 of the 588 inmates released to Dane County last year.

Initial results have been encouraging. According to a United Way report, the program's first group of participants had a recidivism rate of just 5.4%, compared to 25% for other area ex-offenders.

More than 440 other ex-cons, released prior to 2006, also sought help through the Journey Home program last year. This volume, which stressed MUM's limited resources, is indicative of the demand for such programs.

"Being able to connect with the community resources has been huge for a lot of these people," says Journey Home program director Jerome Dillard, himself a former inmate. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have even been able to get to the resources at all."

Reintegrating ex-offenders can increase community security, thus achieving overall reductions in crime.

"When you look at [United Way's] Agenda for Change, you're looking at safety, which of course health-care and housing, education and young children all fit into," says Renee Moe, vice president of resource development for United Way of Dane County. "All the things that go into making a community strong, they're all interconnected."

To have a fair evaluation of the Journey Home program's pilot year, data will need to be compiled throughout 2007 and measured against other two-year recidivism cycles in Dane County.

Looking to the future, MUM and United Way want to increase the number of employers willing to hire, and landlords willing to rent to, ex-offenders and their families.

Rep. Pocan is encouraged by provisions in the upcoming state budget to let parolees get state-issued IDs and incarcerated persons apply for food stamps prior to release. Both measures, says Pocan, will help ex-offenders establish a stable life.

As for Kristina Wuolle, she hopes to get her kids back later this month. But she still needs a place to live that is big enough, yet affordable. She's determined to make this happen.

"I'm not gonna be away from my kids anymore," says Wuolle. "I'm not gonna have my mother take care of my kids because it's just not fair to them."

She admits she made some bad choices in the past but now says, "I know I can do it. Just as long as I stay away from the drugs, I'll be okay."

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