LIFE CHANGING: Doing Hard Time And Working For Change

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We see it a lot when we try new workouts - people having a lot of fun.  It's easy to understand why they show up, but when it starts getting hard - we wonder why they stay.

“Actually, the boot camp here was the worst – and best – for me," Michelle Sikes says with a laugh, "the Y ladies worked me so hard my lunch came up!”

That probably doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but this does, “I’ve learned so much about myself, and the limits where I can push myself.”  Other participants agree with Michelle.  “My heart was probably 56 years old at the start, "says Christine Moran, "when I got done with the wellness program it was 46.”  Carrie Moser has lost sixty pounds. “People come up to me all the time, ‘Carrie, how did you lose this weight?  Tell me how you did it' ... it's turned me into a role model!"

They've done it by changing, which is never easy.  But each woman in this program has good reasons for wanting to change.  “My mother has heart disease and high blood pressure runs in my family," Christine explains, "my son struggles with his weight and I want to be able to live a healthy life and teach him good, healthy strategies that he can utilize to become healthy, too.”  For Michelle the program was less about weight loss and more about changing her mindset.  Carrie wanted, and needed both.  “I wanted to find my own strength.  I felt scared to be getting close to a release.  I was overweight and I was scared to get out being this overweight – what if it leads me back to addiction?  You know, what if I want to use drugs again?”

Changing your life is hard, especially when your life has been hard.

Michelle is a meth addict serving time for selling drugs.  Carrie was convicted of forging checks and says she was addicted to alcohol and drugs.  Christine has a long criminal history including theft and drugs.  They're all at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women paying for their crimes.  And doing hard time can make it hard to change.

“With the women, it’s holistic," says Warden Patti Wachtendorf, "if you don’t treat them as the whole package they’re going to tend to go out and re-offend again.”  That's the last thing she wants and it's why she's wanted to start a prison wellness program for years.  “Because I look outside and I see these women – some of them have gained weight in prison, they’re sedentary, they're on medication….”

After months of research and brainstorming, the first session kicked off last fall.  “We asked the women, how many want to participate in the pilot program?  150 signed up – we could only do 20.  It was supposed to be sixty days – the women got so much out of it and liked it so much we extended it to ninety days.”  And some interesting things started happening.  “The attitude change, the self-confidence, self-esteem…these women felt good about themselves.  They did some hard workouts and they were proud of themselves!"

“I just learned so much about myself," says Carrie, "I learned about pushing myself and coaching myself.”  Some women lost a lot of weight, and most gained a new outlook.  “My favorite part was the gym time," says Christine, "I worked out so much I didn’t have time to get angry here!  It really took my anger away and made me feel good about myself.”  Michelle says she's learned that she doesn't have to use drugs in order to feel good.  "I've always made unhealthy choices, now I can face my problems and work them out on a machine rather than doing drugs.”

The inmates weren't the only one changing because of the program.  Personal trainers Rachel Kelderman and Kristina Storm have been here from the beginning.  They admit they were nervous at first, but now instead of seeing prisoners - they see people.  “The women are amazing!  I came in with a very closed mind and ended up getting more in return from this program than they have,” says Rachel, "we pushed them along, but really they don’t accomplish anything unless they do it themselves.  It’s very rewarding.”    The warden sees the benefit, too.  “It’s good for people in the community to see the women in a different light – they’re not monsters and 95 percent are going to go out into the community again.”

The program is a win-win for everyone involved - even taxpayers.  No state money is used to fund it and many of the women have been able to stop taking medications so it's actually a savings.