Getting out of prison sounds like a positive event, but in actuality it can be a rough time in person's life. Inmates who are released back into society often have little support or resources when they leave the institution.
When released a former inmate usually has: a small box of belongings; perhaps a small television they have purchased; the cloths on their back, which may not include a coat in the winter; and sometimes they get $100.
Rollin and Cleo Swanson are doing their part to help them. "A hundred dollars does not go far these days," said Cleo Swanson.
Cleo and Roland Swanson work with inmates released from prison to help them adjust back to life in regular society.
Rollin Swanson, 80, said his wife Cleo, 86, has actually been involved in prison ministry slightly longer than he has. The couple volunteers for the Reentry Aftercare program of the Church of the Damascus Road (CoDR). He also serves as treasurer of the congregation's outside church council, said the Rev. Paul Stone, CoDR pastor.
"Rollin volunteers to supervise Story Tellers, where dads read books into tape recorders and send the books and tapes to their children. He serves on the CoDR Aftercare steering committee for Northwest Iowa, and he is an active member of the Fort Dodge aftercare committee that provides direct assistance to offenders as they come out of prison," Stone said.
"Right now we are working with three or four inmates," Swanson said. "One of them is a trained nurse who lost his license when he went to prison. He is trying to get that back."
If you want to help: Services are Wednesday evenings at Fort Dodge, and Thursday evenings at Rockwell City. If you would like to attend contact the Church of Damascus Road at 515-955-3579, DamascusCh@aol.com., or 239 N. 11th St., Fort Dodge, Iowa 50501
Swanson reported that very few of the men have savings because most of it was used to pay fines and restitution. A majority of those sentenced to prison also lose their property.
The inmates must apply for the Aftercare program. "First of all Pastor Lang goes in and interviews them to find out if they are really sincere and want help." The inmate then fills out an application and is interviewed by team members.
When an inmate is released they must have a place to go: either to a relative's; an apartment; or the halfway house. "We have funds set up to rent a place," which amounts to at least $1,000 a month for the first month and deposit Swanson said.
"We help them get food stamps, show them where the Lord's Cupboard is, Upper Des Moines, and different places where they can get help." Fort Dodge Housing provides rental assistance for some.
When it comes to job hunting the former inmates are pretty much on their own. "We let them know where there are job openings," he said. "There are some places that are anxious to hire them and help them out. Misty Harbor has hired a number of former inmates."
The former inmate must actively seek employment when they are released.
"We tell them we will work with them for a year. If they still need help we are still going to be there for them," Swanson said. "Usually they are pretty much on their own after a year. There have been a few we haven't been able to help and they end up back in prison."
Swanson hasn't seen any figures for Iowa but in Maryland about 60 percent of former inmates who do not belong to a congregation end up back in prison whereas only about 15 percent of congregation members end up re-offending. "We encourage them to go to church. We don't tell them which one," he said.
The hardest part for a former inmate is being accepted. "A lot of them are afraid when they get out how they are going to be accepted," Swanson said. "Some of them get rejected and some go back to drugs or alcohol. Once they do that they are almost sure to end up back in prison. That's why we are here to provide support right away."
The couple wears small kite pins as a symbol of their ministry. According to the Prison Congregations of America Website, the kite is a symbol of support and love and its main support is a cross. "It is attached with a string as we are to the grace of God, and it needs wind, the Holy Spirit, to lift it into the sky."
"It's a ministry," Swanson said. "In Matthew 25 it talks about visiting the sick and the poor, widows and orphans, and the last group mentioned are prison inmates."
Rollin and Cleo Swanson received their training through the director of COPE, an aftercare program in St. Louis, Missouri, and through the Rev. Ed Nesselhuf, at the time director of Prison Congregations of America.
The couple regularly attends services at Fort Dodge and sometimes at Rockwell City. "They are so appreciative of our visits. Several have asked if they can call me mom," Cleo Swanson said.
Rollin Swanson said it is difficult to get people to visit the inmates. "Some people are so scared to go. I said it is safer there than on the outside," added Cleo Swanson.
More volunteers are needed for Aftercare, especially in neighboring towns, Rollin Swanson said. "First of all we encourage them to come out and visit at a worship service and see how it goes, and see how the inmates enjoy that," he said.
"Rollin is an unassuming man, but one who practices what Jesus said to do," Stone said. "Despite the age difference between Rollin and the offenders, he is always well-received and gets along famously with them. He has a heart for visiting those in prison and helping them make successful transitions into the communities."
About Church of the Damascus Road
The CoDR is a prison ministry affiliated with Prison Congregations of America. The first two prison congregations began in Maryland in the 1980s. Their pastor, the Rev. Ed Nesselhuf returned to South Dakota and founded Prison Congregations of America in 1990. Today there are only 15 prison congregations in the nation.
In the early 1990's Nesselhuf was invited to Fort Dodge to help push for a state prison here. On the second try the proposal was approved. "The fact that a prison congregation would be there helped make that decision," Swanson said.
In 1997 a congregation was formed at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City and the next year a congregation was formed at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility making the Church of the Damascus Road a two site parish, Swanson said. The Rev. Carol Lang was pastor of both locations. He has retired but is still involved in the Aftercare program.
The congregations are open to all denominations, Swanson said. "A lot of inmates have never been in church, never been a member of a church."
"Cleo was asked by Nesselhuf to serve on the Prison Congregations of America Board which she did for a number of years," Swanson said. "When she was on the board I went with her to a lot of the meetings."
Financial support for the church comes from other churches and individuals. "There is no tax money involved in the church at all," he said.
The outside council meets monthly."We also meet with the inside council at each prison at least twice a year," he said. "We have a good time going in an introducing ourselves and they do the same thing. A lot of them tell about their life in prison, how they got there, and how much longer they are going to be there," Swanson said.
About Rollin and Cleo Swanson
Rollin Swanson is a native of Boxholm and worked for Land O'Lakes for 32 years.
Cleo Swanson is a native of Harcourt. She was the Webster County recorder for more than 30 years.
They have been married 23 years and belong to Grace Lutheran Church.