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Coming home after going to prison is hard. For rural Ohioans, it can be even harder.

Coming home after going to prison is hard. For rural Ohioans, it can be even harder.

Coming home after going to prison is hard. For rural Ohioans, it can be even harder.

This article was originally published on February 27, 2024.

Brenda Hart was released from West Central Community Correctional Facility in Marysville, 30 miles north of Columbus, in November. But she was not able to return home, at least not in the way she had hoped.

She couldn’t find housing in Marengo, Morrow County. Hart had to look to Marion, 40 minutes away, where the nearest homeless shelter is located. That helped her get back on her feet, but she wants to return to her hometown.

“That way I can be closer to my mom. My mom has lung cancer,” Hart said.

Every year, about 18,000 Ohioans leave prison and return to their communities. They have to find housing, secure employment and rebuild a sense of stability. It’s a difficult transition, and it can be even harder for those returning to a small town.

Tori Dimick, reentry coordinator at Southeast Healthcare, said the infrastructure to help people like Hart doesn’t exist in Morrow County. She hopes to build a better support system for former inmates with the help of various county organizations and agencies.

A new coalition

At the first meeting of the Morrow County Reentry Coalition in late January, about 30 people gathered in a large conference room. Local employment agencies, the county sheriff, legal aid services, child support services and probation officers shared their ideas on how to better support people returning to the county from correctional facilities.

“They want to support their own. That’s why the people who are coming back to Morrow County live in Morrow County, most of them grew up in Morrow County,” Dimick said. “These are also members of our community and they need the same support that we do.”

Two women sit at a desk in front of whiteboards.

Kendall Crawford

/

The Ohio Newsroom

Tori Dimick (right) led the first meeting of the Morrow County Reentry Coalition in late January.

Initially, Morrow County was going to form a joint coalition with nearby, more populous Delaware County, but Dimick said it was clear the counties had different needs. They wanted to focus on the additional set of challenges people like Hart face when trying to reenter a rural area, such as limited public transportation.

Hart can’t drive, but still has to find his way to neighboring counties for medical appointments, therapy and mandatory court hearings that can be an hour away. Dimick said that for many of his clients, meeting parole standards is a challenge without reliable transportation.

“If you do a random drug test, you find out about it the morning of the test and that’s really not possible,” Dimick said.

Rural recidivism

This lack of resources has consequences. It is rural counties, not metropolitan ones, that have some of the highest recidivism rates, according to the state’s most recent data.

More than 50% of people released from prison in Darke, Knox and Logan counties returned within three years, according to ODRC’s 2021 report.

According to Ronni Burkes, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation’s office of reentry, 63 of Ohio’s 88 counties have such coalitions, but every county needs one. Burkes said this is especially true in rural areas. While urban coalitions typically have a large number of nonprofits and agencies that can participate, rural communities have to think outside the box, she said.

“There may not be a food bank, but there may be organizations that give out food vouchers,” Burkes said. “So you have to be really creative and think about how to offer those services. It may not be how we imagined it.”

Connecting the community

Dimick hopes the Morrow reentry coalition will be a place where they can highlight community support, such as active churches and committed volunteer groups.

She wants to bring them all together at a resource fair.

“It can be something that everyone can come to on the same day and connect with those resources so they don’t feel so lost and they can move forward slowly. They feel like they have more control,” Dimick said.

Hart likes that idea. He said that for too long, the county has had to outsource support to nearby cities like Marion, Mansfield and Marysville.

“It’s really wonderful that Morrow County is stepping up and wanting to make a change,” Hart said.

The close-knit, welcoming community is one of the reasons she wants to come home. But to do so, she’ll need a little help.