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Employers, community members experience what life is like for ex-offenders after prison

Jean Keeley, the office manager at Grace Community Church in North Liberty, participates in an ex-offender simulation, emulating what it's like for people getting out of prison to get re-acclimated to becoming law-abiding citizens with stable jobs. (Marlon Hall/KCRG)
Jean Keeley, the office manager at Grace Community Church in North Liberty, participates in an ex-offender simulation, emulating what it's like for people getting out of prison to get re-acclimated to becoming law-abiding citizens with stable jobs. (Marlon Hall/KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: Nov. 18, 2019 at 7:15 PM CST
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Low unemployment might be causing some businesses to give ex-offenders more opportunities in the job market, and in North Liberty, a nonprofit teamed up with the city to have employers and other community members experience what it is like for those coming out of prison looking to find work.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management, a survey of 2,000 hiring professionals found only 14 percent of human resource managers would not consider ex-offenders. Executives said 82 percent of their felon hires, however, were as successful as employees that were not felons.

An exercise on Monday aimed to replicate some of the challenges ex-offenders have when re-entering society as a law-abiding citizen.

Michelle Heinz, the executive director with InsideOut Reentry in Iowa City, said her nonprofit sees many people that get out of prison and still struggle to find work and get re-acclimated. Monday's exercise served as a chance to show people a struggle that many may not realize even exists.

More than 30 people signed up for the simulation, including the office manager at Grace Community Church in North Liberty, Jean Keeley. For the sake of the simulation, Keeley took the role of "Amanda," and Amanda had some legal issues in her past.

"I was in prison for manufacturing and distributing meth," Keeley said, reading from her role-playing instruction card.

Keeley is not in trouble with the law by any means, and her character Amanda is no longer in legal trouble either; she is working with the use of different cards and stations to try and check off everything she needs to accomplish in a week, including getting identification, paying rent, and buying groceries, but instead doing it in a 15-minute simulation.

Needless to say, it did not take long for Keeley to run into challenges along the way.

"Even knowing where things are, and this is just a meeting in a conference room," Keeley said. "Getting around is difficult, it costs you, you have limited resources to get around, bus tickets, and they ran out. I had to go buy some more. I still haven't paid my rent."

The struggle is by design, originally developed by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Organizers explained that feeling of struggling is very real to many ex-offenders.

"We've had many past simulation attendees that just give up and say in jail, and we know that can happen for individuals, too," Heinz said. "It can just be so many barriers and so challenging that makes it hard to keep moving forward."

For Keeley and others at the simulation, it was something they felt a need to do.

"I encounter a lot of people who have needs working for the church," Keeley said. "It's an eye-opener to see what they might be dealing with."

And that eye-opening experience is exactly what Heinz was hoping to accomplish.

"We hope that people will take those experiences back into their communities and try to make some changes," Heinz said.

Heinz explained the at-times overwhelming difficulty of completing tasks as an ex-offender is important to show, citing how 38-percent of Iowans who leave prison end up back in prison later on. She said her mission is to find more employers to hire ex-offenders.

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