“Twenty percent of the people in prison need to be there. The other 80 percent we’re just mad at.”
Lauri Westfall, statewide director of Nebraska Aftercare IN Action, said she first heard those words from Larry Wayne, deputy director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections.
Westfall said that quotation illustrates that some inmates in Nebraska’s prison system truly do need to be locked up for the protection of society, but many other prisoners are people who made serious mistakes and deserved to be incarcerated, but who can be rehabilitated.
Westfall said that before her son was arrested on charges related to his methamphetamine use, she would drive by a jail or prison and never give a thought to the people inside.
“I believed they were all bad people,” she said.
But she knew Shon was not a bad person, even though he had made mistakes that meant he deserved to be sent to prison. “I thought that if Shon was a good person, there had to be more people just like him who also were in prison.”
That served as Westfall’s inspiration to start Nebraska Aftercare IN Action, a nonprofit group dedicated to preparing inmates for successful re-entry into Nebraska communities.
Westfall said NAIA needs more volunteers to serve inmates returning to Grand Island and Hastings. There are currently about a dozen volunteers, but she said double or even triple that number are needed.
She said there are several reason for the shortage. When NAIA first began, it affiliated with a national nonprofit organization that purportedly had the same mission of helping former inmates re-enter society.
However, Westfall came to have concerns about the viability and reliability of the national group. She eventually believed that it was not in her organization’s best interest to be affiliated with the national group. As a result, she and others set about the hard work of legally establishing nonprofit status for Nebraska Aftercare IN Action.
Partly as the result of that temporary, redirected focus, the number of volunteers in Grand Island and Hastings dropped off. Westfall said the other reason more volunteers are needed is because budget cuts are forcing prisons to release more prisoners earlier, through either parole or furlough.
Nebraska Aftercare IN Action is set up so an inmate who is about to return to the community is assigned to a volunteer team of four or five people, Westfall said.
The ultimate goal for Nebraska Aftercare IN Action is to reduce recidivism, said Westfall, who noted each state has its own methods for calculating rates. She said Nebraska Aftercare IN Action has the simplest equation. Its work is successful only if an inmate does not return to prison for the remainder of his or her life.
Westfall said that in its young history, Nebraska Aftercare IN Action has had a good record of working with inmates who have stayed out of prison. The process begins with having inmates fill out an application as their release date approaches.
Prison officials who know inmates best because they have worked with them often review those applications and pass them on to Nebraska Aftercare IN Action. Westfall said NAIA also reviews the applications and is free to reject an applicant if it feels the person is not a good candidate for help.
For example, one person wrote that he did not have a problem with alcohol, Westfall said. Nebraska Aftercare IN Action rejected the applicant because it decided that person was in denial, making him a prime candidate to be a repeat offender.
“He was in prison for his fourth DUI,” Westfall explained.
The NAIA team begins working with the inmate even prior to release, trying to find out what his or her needs might be. Westfall said that on the day an inmate is released, NAIA often tries to have two people “at the gate” to meet the prisoner and to drive him or her home.
Sometimes, an inmate may prefer to be met by family members for the ride home. Other times, an inmate has been completely rejected by family. Regardless of the initial transportation arrangements, a meeting between the inmate and the volunteer team is scheduled within the first 24 hours of an inmate arriving in town, Westfall said.
Not surprisingly, a just-released inmate’s most immediate needs are shelter, transportation and a job, she said. As a result, team members might drive an inmate to the Motor Vehicle Department so he or she can take a driver’s exam to get a license.
NAIA volunteers also might be on the lookout for a used vehicle that a newly employed person can afford to buy.
Westfall said that when an inmate is first released, team members might have numerous meetings to help that person. As time goes on, there might be only weekly meetings. Meetings typically occur in a public place such as the city library or perhaps a restaurant, where people can talk over a cup of coffee.
Over time, meetings’ focus might shift from issues such as getting a job and transportation to volunteers meeting with a former inmate “just for fun.” Those meetings might involve going fishing or going bowling, Westfall said. She noted many inmates either have never learned how to have fun in a constructive way or have forgotten how to have fun.
Often times, that is because an inmate used to have so-called “fun” by abusing alcohol or drugs, Westfall said.
For many, many inmates – even those who might have been incarcerated for an offense such as burglary or assault – the underlying problem is abuse of alcohol or drugs, Westfall said.
As a result, many of NAIA’s best volunteers are people who are successfully recovering from alcohol or drug addictions, Westfall said. Some of those volunteers have been imprisoned because of their addiction issues, although most have not.
While those in recovery can be effective when working with inmates, Westfall said, NAIA is not necessarily looking only for people in recovery to work as volunteers. Anybody can volunteer. She suggested that people might want to volunteer along with a friend whom they know from church, work or some other organization.
Westfall said volunteers often will meet in pairs with an inmate, although one-to-one meetings do occur. One thing NAIA does not allow is a one-to-one meeting between a volunteer and an inmate of the opposite sex, a policy that is just common sense.
She said there is a real financial benefit for keeping former inmates from re-entering prison. It can cost $30,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated. But if a former prisoner successfully re-integrates to the community, he or she is not only saving taxpayers’ money, but also is now paying taxes.
Even beyond the financial impact is the emotional impact of seeing a person turn his or her life around.
“The payoff is amazing,” Westfall said.
Check it out
There are several ways to contact Nebraska Aftercare IN Action.
The telephone number is (308) 381-8231.
The web address is www.aftercareinaction.com.
The mailing address is:
PO Box 5122
Grand Island, NE 68802.
By Harold Reutter
When Lauri Westfall was asked whether she had any success stories of former inmates successfully being reintegrated into the community, she quickly mentioned several names.
One is Sean Sartin.
Talking about Sartin made Westfall talk about the “amazing” payoff in seeing somebody completely turn his life around.
In a telephone interview, Sartin said he was incarcerated in a state prison in Oklahoma because of a drug-related offense that occurred because of his addiction..
As the end of his sentence drew near, Sartin said, his mother found out about Nebraska Aftercare IN Action, wanting him to use the organization to make a successful re-entry to the community.
Sartin said he remained incarcerated a year past the date when he was supposed to be released on parole. He said Nebraska Aftercare IN Action played a big role in helping straighten out the snail-paced, bureaucratic paperwork so he could be released without even more delay.
He wanted to return to Grand Island because he believed that if he stayed in Oklahoma, he would return to prison. “I had to get away from old places, old faces and old habits,” he said.
Within the first day arriving in Grand Island, he went to the Grand Island Library for a meeting with volunteers from the NAIA team. He said he immediately felt as though he had met people who understood him.
Sartin said he was able to live with his mother, so finding shelter was not an immediate problem. He said NAIA volunteer Donald Pass gave him a lead to his first job in a local convenience store. He said Pass also gave him a ride to work on numerous occasions.
Sartin said another NAIA volunteer, Jeff Thomas, bought a car and then sold him the car that he had been driving. “I still have it,” he said.
He and Thomas started going fishing together, which is something they still enjoy.
Today, Sartin is living a life that is indistinguishable from the life of a person who has never been in a prison. He has his own apartment, his own car and a job in a local manufacturing plant. The new, higher-paying job with more responsibility shows how a person can start with small steps and progress.
Sartin said he is now eight years sober and three years, going on four years, out of prison. Because of the help he received from his own NAIA team volunteers, Sartin is now volunteering his time to help former inmates who want to re-enter their community.
Sartin said he works as an NAIA volunteer because he believes any inmate who truly wants to change and make something of his life should get that opportunity.