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U-M students help former inmates return to society

Check out an audio slideshow featuring U-M students working at the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative >

Megan McKinley seeks to change one attitude at a time when she gives lectures about former Michigan prisoners needing a second chance, either by obtaining a job or securing an apartment.
Melissa Stellini, a junior psychology major who volunteers at MPRI, works on a job application with Roderick McCreary, a former inmate who has been in and out of prison for nearly 30 years. Below, U-M senior Kelsey Ott (left), who serves as the MPRI social activities coordinator, chats with friends before a weekend softball game. MPRI participant Nickol Swisher (right) says playing on the team makes her feel like a part of the community. (Photos by Jared Wadley)

The U-M graduate isn't deterred by skepticism or disinterest among those in the audience. McKinley and other U-M students and graduates believe in the mission of the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative for Washtenaw County, where they work to decrease recidivism through advocacy, policy and programming.

The Ann Arbor program seeks to reduce crime by offering services and supervision to offenders from their entry to prison through their reintegration into society.

"I go out into the community to help people understand why it is so difficult for these citizens to find success," McKinley says. "It's the community's responsibility to reintegrate them back into society."

MPRI community coordinator Mary King says the program has eight to 12 students per semester, and some interns return in volunteer capacities.

"They are very active in many roles in MPRI," King says.

Students come from many disciplines, but MPRI often gets participants, including McKinley, who are affiliated with the School of Social Work, says Edie Kieffer, associate professor of social work.

Melissa Stellini, a junior psychology major, helps former prisoners complete job applications and resumes.

"It seems as if a lot of these people don't have the support or options, but that shouldn't be the reason why they return to prison," Stellini says. "That's why I wanted to help them so that they can have a better life."

A better life is what Roderick McCreary strives for. The MPRI participant has been in and out of prison eight times totaling nearly 30 years. "MPRI U+00E2U+0080U+00A6 gives you a running start at a goal," says McCreary, who worked with Stellini on a job application in a computer lab.

Former prisoners receive counseling, a free meal on their first day out, a free bus pass, hygiene kits, transitional employment and housing assistance. The program lasts six months with a graduation ceremony.

MPRI operates 18 sites statewide and works with social service agencies, law enforcement, faith-based congregations and community members. It helps about 300 prisoners annually, King says. Participation in the program is often a condition of parole for these medium- to high-risk parolees, she says.

Michigan, which has the fifth-largest corrections system in the nation, releases more than 10,000 inmates from its prisons each year. Nearly half of them return to prison within two years, costing the state $112 million per year.

Prior to MPRI, which began in 2004, the state faced challenges in providing coordinated support for prisoners as they returned home. King says parolees typically were given a bus ticket from prison and an appointment with their parole agents. Housing meant living in a homeless shelter, which King notes became overcrowded. Job-search assistance was minimal, and parolees had a difficult time obtaining a state ID card.

"MPRI is vitally important for us as an agency," says John Cordell, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections. "It creates better citizens and safer neighborhoods."

The transition to the community, or the re-entry phase, begins about 60 days before the prisoner's release date. Re-entry plans address housing, employment, and services for addiction and mental illness.

"We would be set up for failure if this program weren't available," says Worlee Dennis Jr., a former inmate and MPRI participant. "What I like is that it shows community involvement for us to get a second chance."

The program also offers former inmates opportunities to become comfortable with the community through activities, such as bowling, barbecues and softball leagues.

"It makes me happy to know that the participants can go to these activities and feel as if they're part of the community," says U-M senior Kelsey Ott, who serves as the MPRI social activities coordinator.

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