Reporter goes to prison

March 5, 2010
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Contributed by IL staff reporter Rebecca Berfanger

I’ve driven by the Indianapolis Re-Entry Facility on Indianapolis’ near east side more times than I can count. Today, I went beyond the barbwire fence of the former women’s prison.

While this was my first time inside a detention facility for a story – a sad thing to admit for someone who calls herself a legal reporter – I realize this is not the typical facility. When I spoke with the public information officer to get permission for my visit, she only referred to the men as residents, not inmates or prisoners. And, the re-entry program isn’t available for everyone. If one of the men violates the guidelines, he is sent to another Department of Correction facility.

I went there for an article I’m working on for the March 17 issue about a program called Thresholds and Transitions that started just this year. The program includes weekly “Healthy @ Re-Entry” classes that cover various issues, such as HIV/STD education, job placement, substance-abuse treatment, and advice for healthy relationships. The program aims to help the men find out what they need not only to stay out of the system after they get out, but also how to survive roadblocks they’ll need to overcome.

Today’s particular class featured speakers who discussed how to get jobs and substance abuse counseling on the outside. The third part of the class included a guide to other services the residents can use on the outside.

The facilitator of the discussion then asked if anyone had questions about the services listed in a guide they received. One of the participants asked how he could afford a lawyer, knowing he previously had custody issues with his children’s mother.

Then a lightbulb went on over my head. I guessed his question wasn’t the only one in the classroom regarding family law or other civil legal issues. Turns out, based on the reactions of other participants, I guessed right. Having reported on legal aid and pro bono services in Indiana for the last three years, I decided to raise my hand to explain how the services work and how to get information.

Even though I’m not an attorney, I felt proud of our readership and legal community at that moment knowing that these services are available, including information and services available to pro se parties.

After the discussion, a couple of the residents personally thanked me for explaining civil legal aid and pro bono efforts of which they were previously unaware.

Some of the men used words like “blessed” and “excited” regarding the opportunities they’ve had in the re-entry facility to unlearn the behaviors that put them in there in the first place. Maybe just knowing a lawyer on the outside will be willing to at least listen to their civil legal issues could make a difference.

After all, these men will have enough to deal with when they get out … and now they’ll have one more way to get help they need.

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