KRISTINA

At a time when I was my most vulnerable, new to prison, for an unpopular crime, I was embraced and cared for by women who, by society’s standards, were the worst of the worst. They were convicted of what the media called the most heinous crimes. Yet when I was cold, they clothed me. When I was hungry, they fed me. And when I was weak, they held me. I found women who truly wanted better, for themselves and their children, but lacked the skills and support to get them there. I often wondered why I was placed in their path and what I could do to help.

When Vanessa Thompson, a woman I had gotten to know over the years, asked me to be part of a group challenged with the mission to develop her vision and create a program that would help women to reenter society successfully, I couldn’t say no. We began toiling over U.S. housing policy, meeting with different members of community organizations, and discussing what might be the key components of a successful program. Our research supported our own inclinations: housing and employment are the biggest indicators of whether or not a woman will make it or go back to prison. We believed marrying these two concerns with intensive character building and therapeutic services would create the ultimate program. And thus COF was born.

COF has not only given me a way to give back and serve others, it has fostered a restored hope in what good work can one day be associated with my name. Working with COF has made me feel like I have value and worth, not in spite of where I’ve been, but because of where I’ve been. A little over ten years ago when I was arrested, I never could have imagined that I would one day be walking the halls of the Statehouse, meeting with policy makers and working on bills that will change laws. I am just one person, a felon and a failure, yet with COF I am able. Able to change. Able to serve. Able to affect change.

VANESSA

“In the midst of difficulty lies opportunity.”

– Albert Einstein

Constructing Our Future started as a vision from a prison dorm room. I saw a problem, but more than that, I saw an opportunity. An opportunity to step outside of my norm and make a difference that affected more than myself. This vision led me to do what few in the history of the Department of Correction have ever done: Take an idea, present it in front of the state legislature, and become part of the development of a program that has the potential to change the face of re-entry. By the standards of prison, I wasn’t supposed to do any of this, but through determination, persistence, and lots of help from other women at the prison, I have been able to develop my vision and change not only my life but also the lives of women around me forever. Through the development of COF, I have acquired many skills that will help me be successful upon my release, skills that will help me become a positive team player in every venture that I pursue. More importantly, I think that through this project I have gained a confidence that I have never had before and the awareness that even through the hardest times there is an opportunity to embrace adversity, use it to help others, and apply it to make change.

RHEANN

So much has changed while I’ve been incarcerated. I watch what is going on in the world, but I’ve remained disconnected, only seeing events on a screen. My routine rarely changes. For years I’ve been affected by the world, but not a participant within it. I am tethered only by family and connections I’ve developed within these confines. The decisions I made in my past have created this reality.

Now I make decisions that will create a better future for myself as well as others. Helping found COF allows the opportunity for restorative justice. It allows me to contribute positively to a community, where in my community I contributed negatively. It helps me to take pride in the community I’m helping to reconstruct. This is the beginning of a continuous personal mission to make the only amends I can.

Since being incarcerated, I’ve earned my associates and bachelor’s degrees, Department of Labor certification as an animal trainer, and various other certificates. I have completed many self-improvement groups and grown as an individual. But with that education all I’ve been able to do is plan for an unknown future. Working with COF is an opportunity to apply the education I’ve received in prison, contributing while still incarcerated, rather than waiting decades to apply myself. In my “free” time I’m also studying for ServSafe certification, pursuing a certification in Education for Ministries, and thanks to the support of my loving family, working towards a paralegal certification through a correspondence course.

SARAH

I am a tree hugger. My manicurist makes that disapproving sucking noise through her teeth each time she scrapes out soil from beneath my nails, but I am unapologetic. Flowers and shade trees and plants spring from the soil and give us oxygen to breathe. Just as soil contains the building blocks of life, COF homes include the building blocks of family, neighborhoods, and community.

All of those empty houses, lonely for residents – other than mice and squirrels – sit abandoned on streets that once thrived with life. They remember backyard barbeques and sparklers on the 4th of July, children’s laughter floating on air while grandparents sit on front porch swings and talk about the good old days. With the Constructing Our Future team, I am helping to create good new days!

DOMINIQUE

At 26 years old I’m one of the youngest and newest members of the group. I’m no Tim Allen but this is more than home improvement for me. The goal for me is to establish vital life skills and character values that will help not only me but also my family. Constructing Our Future strives both to fill a need for post-incarcerated women and to repair and revitalize neighborhoods. I don’t want to just change my future; I want to be an example for the women following in my footsteps and prove that you can do anything you set your mind to.

NATALIE

Constructing Our Future offers me a “money in mouth” opportunity to work towards the change that I envision for my future. It offers me a means to encourage, support, and witness incarcerated women become co-creators of their lives. Working with COF empowers me by providing meaningful work in achieving necessary change in the criminal justice system. Through Constructing Our Future, I am able to do all of this while housed inside a prison complex. It allows me to counteract some effects of having been convicted of a felony in the State of Indiana for myself and women that are defined by more than the felony conviction: women that have children; women that are fully capable of participating in their community; women that are typically marginalized from job access, home ownership and job training; and women that have multiple impediments to their successful reentry to society from prison.

One day I will be on the tail end of the criminal justice system, so my work affects my future opportunities. I am working towards the change I want to see in the world. Working with Constructing Our Future allows for the use of specific knowledge and insight from those directly affected by the criminal justice system and creates paths for women to reintegrate themselves and their families back into Indiana communities. The answers to the problems faced by hyper-incarceration are not abstract; they are logical, possible and accessible. It will take the collaboration of communities and resources to make those living within our communities raise their quality of life. Incarcerated and previously incarcerated persons are excitedly taking an active role in our reintegration to Indiana communities.

CHAR’DAE

I slowly walked into a room filled with at least 10 women who were very advanced in areas that I hadn’t even discovered. I honestly didn’t even know what I was walking into; I just knew I was called for a purpose, or at least I hoped so. When I became incarcerated I thought my education ended. I actually thought that I was going to become dumb in prison. It’s funny now, but then it was absolutely horrifying. However, in that room full of women, slowly but surely all of our geniuses came together, and we began to construct our future. Constructing Our Future has revealed an avenue in my mind that the system told me was no longer possible. In Constructing Our Future, I have become part of a better cause here in prison. We are a symbol for the purposes of unity, responsibility, progress, and the change of the prison world.

I signed up for the public policy class because I wanted it to be known that a sentence does not define you and that incarceration does not have to confine your determination to accomplish your greater goal. I have applied that statement to life, and now I live it. I will be taking Constructing Our Future home with me and I plan to continue into the mentoring side of the program for younger women.