There is help with food, health insurance, housing, work — the basics of life are covered for inmates leaving the Dakota County jail.
But there is a gap in the social and emotional networks of people returning to society, and Community Connection Circles Dakota County has been created to change that.
“One just doesn’t come out of prison and all of a sudden they are a model citizen,” said Leslye Taylor, who is coordinating the program. “It’s not just a physical process. It’s an emotional process.”
Connection circles are support groups, where people re-entering society sit down in a circle with volunteers and talk about their day and their concerns.
Officials hope they will prevent repeat offenses. That goal is particularly important in Minnesota, which leads the nation in recidivism, according to a Pew Center on the States study from 2011. It found 61 percent of prisoners released in 2004 were back behind bars in the next three years.
“Minneapolis is a small town,” one of the Connection Circle participants told Taylor. “All of the people I used to hang out with are on every street corner. It’s hard for me.”
When someone connects with a group of positive people from their own community, they are less likely to return to crime, said Ron Wells, a Dakota County community corrections supervisor.
The circles, which are made up of one former inmate and several volunteers, meet for a year. The groups initially get together every week. As time goes on, they meet less frequently, said Kris Miner, executive director of St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program.
Miner manages various circles in western Wisconsin, but the creation of Community Connection Circles Dakota County is only her second project in Minnesota. The organization also works at the county’s Juvenile Services Center in Hastings.
Dakota County approached her after deciding in 2013 that people need more support than 90 days with a probation officer, Wells said. The county pays $26,040 a year to contract with the restorative justice program. Wells hopes it will end up saving taxpayers money by reducing jail stays.
The circles started operating about six months ago and they have a quarter of the volunteers needed, Miner said. She has put out a new request for help.
About 10 former inmates and 25 volunteers are participating in the circles, she said. There is a waitlist of inmates from the county jail and Shakopee women’s prison who want to join a circle.
This new service follows the county’s creation of the Re-Entry Assistance Program in 2011, where corrections staff and community service employees identify inmates’ needs, from mental health and addiction treatment to child support, and form a plan to help them through the transition.
The circles offer something people cannot find from caseworkers and members of the system who are paid to help them, Miner said.
Talking with the groups make people feel less isolated and lets them know that community members — people they see at the grocery store or in church — care, she said.
One woman in the circle spent eight months in prison in Shakopee, where she was told what to eat and wear. After prison, she was overwhelmed with those choices. The circle listened to her and did not minimize those concerns, Miner said.
“It’s validating for someone to be heard,” Miner said. “That she could express it helps her cope with it.”