Lincoln nonprofit provides training, hope to former inmates

Story, aggregated content and video by Lauren Brown-Hulme, NewsNetNebraska

Incarceration made Lester Wagner Jr. good at waiting.

First, waiting to get a job after his release from Nebraska State Penitentiary. Lots of applications, lots of interviews, lots of no’s.

His first “yes” was a job at a demolition site.

He and a buddy would wake up at 3 a.m. and head to downtown Lincoln from North 26th Street, trekking in the snow. They’d then wait for the 5 a.m. bus that took them to the site. The work and hours weren’t ideal, but it was all they could get.

Then his employer discovered Wagner had served time for manslaughter and use of a weapon to commit a felony. Wagner’s hours were cut and he had to search for a new job. This didn’t look good on the job history of someone who already had the blemish of a criminal record. 

So it was back to waiting. Waiting for life to begin to feel normal.

“Getting a job and finding a place to live are probably the most difficult to deal with once you’re out,” Wagner said. “And finding a place to live is harder than finding a job. There are places people with a felony can’t go.”

Overpopulated and underprepared

2,200 inmates released each year from Nebraska state prisons. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services offers reentry services to prepare these inmates for the job and housing search.

But currently, the Nebraska prison system is the second-most overcrowded and understaffed in the country, now at 159 percent capacity. According to a report by Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Implementation Coordinating Committee, overpopulation and high employee turnover have resulted in a lack of mental health care and other programming for inmates. 

Some inmates are discharged without receiving any transitional programming. Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System Doug Koebernick said the recidivism rate of two of every three inmates reoffending and returning to prison can be connected to this lack of available rehabilitation programming.

“There have been lots of steps made lately [in NDCS] to increase programming, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Koebernick said. “The big problem is there aren’t a lot of programs going on inside to teach those necessary skills for when you get out.”

Ruth Karlsson saw an opportunity for nongovernment organizations to partner with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to prepare former inmates for the outside world and reduce the amount that return to prison.

In 2004, Karlsson founded Released and Restored in Lincoln, with the goal of giving Nebraska inmates and ex-offenders the tools and support systems necessary for reentry.

The organization has a lower recidivism rate than the national average, with only 18 percent of inmates who participate in Released and Restored programming reoffending and returning to prison.

“Without providing programming to assist them on their journey of reentry and preparing for it…we are going to do what has previously been done which is recycling people back through the system,” Karlsson said. “We just think there’s a better way of doing it. Prepare them while they’re in so they’re successful when they’re out.”

Planning with a purpose 

The organization offers programming both in and outside of prison. Some programs focus on the job search – from resume building to how to interview and manage money – while other programs focus on helping individuals create plans to make more moral and healthy decisions once they are released.

Wagner took Released and Restored’s “Planning with a Purpose” class twice while incarcerated and when he was released, he volunteered as a teacher for the organization.

“At least this gives you somewhere to go, someone to help you to transition back into the community,” Wagner said of Released and Restored. “Without it, there would be a lot of people going back in.”

Now Wagner serves the organization that once served him, working as the lead facilitator for Released and Restored. He has also pursued higher education, currently working toward a doctorate in educational leadership.

“I don’t go out bragging about being formerly incarcerated,” Wagner said. “But I think it’s good to share…it’s hard work getting here, but it can be done.”

Wagner is not the only former inmate who now works for Released and Restored.

When Program Director Angie Harvey was incarcerated 25 years ago, she said an organization similar to Released and Restored made such an impact on her, she wanted to make a similar difference in other inmates’ lives.

“The biggest change I see in people is their self-confidence,” Harvey said. “They may come into the program with low self-esteem, a lot of shame, but we work with them on that and help them to see being in prison is not the end of the world and there is life after prison.”

Harvey said she can share many stories about those whose lives after prison have been made better because of Released and Restored.

She spoke of one inmate who served time in the Women’s Prison in York and took the 20-week “Planning with Purpose” class twice. When she was released, she also took a two-week class focused on job readiness.

“We’re always amazed at the amount of time people devote to our programs,” Harvey said. “It’s rewarding to see them getting jobs and doing well as a result.”

Support from the state 

Karlsson said the need for organizations like Released and Restored is the same it has always been. What is different, she said, is the Nebraska legislature’s support of nonprofit programs.

Released and Restored is one of seven organizations statewide that received state-funded grants in 2016 totaling $6.2 million.

“What we have seen change over 12.5 years is the unicameral’s willingness to understand what we have long understood…prepare men and women for their release while they’re still incarcerated,” Karlsson. “We have now been welcomed into the system to offer this type of programming.”

Koebernick said although the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has its own reentry programming, organizations like Released and Restored are valuable because inmates may relate to outsiders more than Corrections staff members.

“There isn’t an ‘us versus them’ mentality in that relationship,” Koebernick said. “These people have a high level of interest and caring, they bring something extra to the table and then once people transition out they still have those connections on the outside. If they’re nervous about what will happen on the outside, now they’ll have this support system.”

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