Mitchellville Prison Opens Doors to Community Leaders for ‘Re-Entry Summit’

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MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa -- When you walk into Living Unit 18, it feels like a normal dorm.  There are all the dorm essentials: bunk beds, a wardrobe, a few pictures and even somethings to pass time.  But it doesn’t take long to realize, that this is far from a normal dorm.

“This is my friend Billy.  He was killed in a homicide last year in Des Moines,” said Virginia “Gen” Baker, an inmate at Mitchellville Women’s Prison.
Thursday the doors to Facility Z at Mitchellville Women’s Prison were opened for a special tour.

“Right here my little living area where I call home,” said Baker.

She’s excited but also nervous because she is going home next week.

“I’ve done well out here and not so well out there.  So, when I do well out there and I come back like this last time it’s frustrating, disappointing to myself and the people that helped me,” said Baker.

This will be her fifth stint at Mitchellville.  She knows there are a ton of reasons why she is here again but she says the only person she can blame is herself.

“A judge sentenced me one time and told me that if I was to stay on my meds I probably won’t relapse as much.  He was correct, I believe, now looking back at being here five times I believe,” said Baker.

Gen is part of a growing number of women incarcerated that suffer mental illness.  The Bureau of Justice Stats estimates that 73% of them have from some form of mental health related issue.

“Dump them all in prison and you expect them to do with a $22 million budget.  Well, that doesn’t work,” said Jamie Ross, former Inmate at Mitchellville.

Ross knows the struggle all too well. She still comes back to volunteer and she knows that there is not enough counselors here to help.  For the 700 inmates there are 11 counselors on staff.

“More staff to help to provide services.  More staff to help teach classes for the women who need substance abuse assistance.  More staff to provide mental health services.  Those kind of things are important when it comes to helping people,” said Jennifer Swihart, counselor at Mitchellville.

You need money to do that, and everyone here knows that isn’t going to happen.  The corrections’ budget is often the first item reduced in the annual budget.

Fewer resources lead to fewer inmates prepared for re-entry, that leads to more re-offenders and the vicious cycles goes on and on.

Instead of them just spinning the wheel over again, they decided to do something about it with  Re-Entry Summit.

They welcomed in politicians and community leaders inside the prison. Hopefully to give them a better look at what these women have and don’t have.  The other part of the day was to show them how difficult is for them once they get out.

All of the leaders went through a simulation to show the steps they need to follow and how easy can be to slip up.  Warden Sheryl Dahm says they will work with the resources they have for now but if we really want to help these women, it will take more help on the outside.

“100% correct,” said Warden Sheryl Dahm.

Warden Dahm estimates that 20% of the Mitchellville inmates will return to the prison.

Gen believes that this will be her last time. She believes this because she is aligned with a group that will help her find a house and a job. With this support system in place she hopes she won’t be back for a 6th time.

“I want to say that, yes. My goal is that yes,” said Baker.