Right now when former offenders are released from prison into Boone County, they’re sent to a parole officer stationed in a strip mall on Providence Road. But early next year, their first stop will look more like a community center than a government office.
The new Recovery Support and Reentry Opportunity Center on Burlington Street, called ‘the ROC’ for short, is still a big, vacant office space — but won’t stay that way for long. ROC director Dan Hannekan gestures to areas where couches, a TV, work spaces and a basketball hoop will be.
He said he wants the people who come through his center to feel welcome because often reentering the community after getting out of prison can often feel the opposite.
Hannekan aims to change this. His organization, in2action, which has been around for a few years is now opening the ROC - a physical space that will connect people leaving the justice system with many of the resources they need to get back on their feet. Things like finding stable housing, jobs and addiction treatment.
“For people when they're released from prison, I'm asked all the time, what's the most important thing?” Hannekan said. “And the most important thing is to get people everything they need and to get it to them at the same time...Because if there's just one piece of that puzzle missing, the whole thing crumbles.”
When people leave prison without a place to live, a source of income, transportation and other basic necessities, the chances of them ending up back in prison are high. And in Missouri, these kinds of readmissions back into the justice system are common.
According to a state-commissioned report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, about half of prison admissions in the state of Missouri are people who have been in the justice system before.
Those who work with former offenders have known about the barriers to successful reentry for a long time. Hannekan, a former inmate himself, has spent his career trying to keep former prisoners out of the justice system. He founded and now runs in2action, a faith-based non-profit in Columbia that provides resources for former inmates.
And the ROC will take in2action’s mission one step further, by putting all of those resources under one roof. The center will have six work stations that will host a rotating docket of local organizations to connect clients with services like rent assistance, job training, health care and addiction treatment.
When former inmates arrive at the center they’ll meet with a staff member called a care coordinator, whose job is to connect inmates with the services they need.
The ROC’s staff will have access to records from the Department of Corrections assessment of each person they release from prison back into Boone County. This, Hannekan said, will allow the care coordinator to come up with an individualized plan for each client before they even arrive.
“We're not trying to funnel somebody into a cookie cutter solution,” Hannekan said. “We know very specifically what your needs are and we have already done some homework before you were released to make sure that we could get these needs met.”
Care coordinators will be people who understand first-hand what their clients are going through. Hannekan said the position will be staffed by people who were formerly-incarcerated themselves, or who have dealt with substance use disorders and addiction.
Mataka Askari will be one of those coordinators. He spent 23 and a half years in prison, and uses his experience to help other former offenders re-enter the community.
Askari, whose given name is Micheal Earnes, now works as a peer support specialist at Burrell Behavioral Health where he works with people who have substance use disorders. He works with in2action to ensure the ROC will include all of the resources people need when they leave the justice system.
“This is a place where you have an opportunity to gain access to the things that are needed in order to reenter society successful,” Askari said. “Remember, I've been to prison. So I want all my guys to know, like… I'm closing the gaps. I'm making sure that every single thing that we need, from underwear to transportation, to employment, to mental health services, are being provided.”
The agreement between in2action and the state, which was signed by DOC director Anne Precythe at the ROC’s grand opening, permits a parole officer to be stationed at the new center. So, instead of checking in at an office in a government building, people who have just left prison will go to the ROC to do their mandatory check-in with the officer.
Groups like in2action and places like the ROC, which support those leaving the justice system play an important role in the state’s overall goal of reducing its prison population.
In recent years, the Department of Corrections has faced mounting costs and overcrowding in its prisons. By 2016, Missouri’s prison population outnumbered its official capacity by more than 500 inmates. The CSG predicts that, without intervention, the prison population will grow to more than 35,200 inmates — more than 3000 above the department’s capacity.
If the state’s incarcerated population continued to grow at its 2016 rate, the DOC would have had to sink nearly a half a billion dollars into two new prison facilities.
In 2017, former governor Eric Grietens signed a bill that established the Missouri State Justice Reinvestment Task Force. The group commissioned a review of Missouri’s justice system by the Council of State Governments Justice Center [CSG].
The CSG report identified recidivism rates among the primary issues the DOC need to address, along with an increase in violent crime and insufficient behavioral health treatment.
According to the report more than half of people admitted to Missouri prisons were on probation or parole supervision, and of those about half were reincarcerated because of technical violations of parole conditions.
The same report recommends that the state invest in community-based support services, like those being provided at the ROC, to combat recidivism rates.
Though the state is not giving the ROC any financial assistance, DOC director Precythe said the Center will play an important role in keeping formerly incarcerated people on track when they’re released from prison.
“A lot of the people with us [in prison] have hopes and dreams while they're incarcerated and they want a chance to learn to live the way they've become, and not have to go back to who they were,” Precythe said. “And so Dan Hanneken and his team [at] the Reentry Opportunity Center, this is an environment that affords these folks to really practice living the person they've become.”
About 380 people are released from Missouri prisons each week, which amounts to more than 19,000 people each year. Of those, 400 come back to Boone County annually. Hannekan said that everyone, not just former offenders, benefit when former offenders can successfully reintegrate into society.
“It affects all of us,” Hannekan said. When people are released from prison and they're successful, we can expect crime rates to go down and we can expect victimization to go down. We can expect public safety to go up, and we all have a stake in that.”