ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Inmates in state prisons face many challenges when they make the transition to the outside. In the U.S., three quarters of them will be arrested for a new crime within five years. In Indianapolis, some inmates have come up with a plan to help former prisoners and the city. From member station WFYI in Indianapolis, Drew Daudelin reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's look at the "Treat Incarcerated Women With Dignity" article.
DREW DAUDELIN, BYLINE: If you visit this room filled with tables and computers, it's nearly impossible to tell you're inside a maximum-security prison - no metal bars, no security guards nearby. It looks like a typical classroom complete with a teacher and an attentive group of students.
But the students here are inmates at the Indiana women's prison. Vanessa Thompson is 44 years old and was convicted of murder 19 years ago. Two years ago, as a mayoral race was kicking off in Indianapolis, Thompson was watching TV in her cell when she saw a candidate mention the thousands of abandoned homes across the city.
VANESSA THOMPSON: I started coming up with all these ideas. How can we be a part of helping him take care of blighted neighborhoods and in the process give back to community and be more than what the stigma says we are?
DAUDELIN: It was a eureka moment for Thompson.
THOMPSON: I know that a lot of the women here face the issue of having a safe environment a stable home to go to.
DAUDELIN: Vanessa Thompson brought the idea to her teacher, and the class started fleshing it out. Here's how they see it working. Women at the prison learn construction skills. In their final years before release, they're sent in groups to rehab abandoned houses in Indianapolis. Once released, if they work for at least 5,000 hours, they can buy one of them at a subsidized price.
Within months, Thompson was explaining her idea to lawmakers. Two years later, the House and Senate voted unanimously to support the proposal, but they didn't fund it. But the support represents vindication for women like Sarah Jo Pender, a 38-year-old convicted of double murder in 2002. Pender says being taken seriously has had a profound effect on women in the group.
SARAH JO PENDER: There's an untapped source of intelligence in prisons. I've watched women grow who did not want to say anything. And they would just giggle and laugh and look down and now can speak into a microphone and know that somebody cares.
DAUDELIN: This process of self-restoration through hard work lies at the core of the program's philosophy. Ann Jacobs heads the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She says it's about self-determination.
ANN JACOBS: I mean, you've got a system that tells people when to get up and when to go to bed and when the lights have to be off. So it undermines agency and initiative. But there are correctional administrators who aren't threatened by that and who do foster it.
DAUDELIN: The inmates hope that partnerships with the city and the Department of Correction will help turn the idea into reality. The women learned how to write grant proposals and have set up a crowdfunding page online.
Andrew Falk is a public policy analyst and helps coordinate the project. About once a week, he meets with the women in the prison's classroom. Falk spent years working for the Indiana attorney general. He says his focus on prosecuting cases made him rethink the effectiveness of the state's prison system.
ANDREW FALK: We cannot live our life in fear. We cannot live our life with them segregated. We're not going to ship them off to Australia as a penal colony. They're going to be coming back and living in our society. And I want them to be as successful as possible.
DAUDELIN: Falk and the inmates are now focusing on raising enough money to help restore both the city's abandoned homes and the lives of the prisoners who need them. For NPR News, I'm Drew Daudelin in Indianapolis.
SHAPIRO: And this reporting is part of a partnership with The Marshall Project and member station WFYI.
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