As the Arizona state government completes their annual budget, I write to encourage them to support programs that help men and women successfully re-enter society after having completed a prison term.
I know a lot about this, because I was in prison myself one year ago.
At the time, I was finishing my sentence. A few years prior, a fair and compassionate judge gave me a second chance following my original crimes, but I wasted that opportunity and landed in prison, at Florence West, a facility 60 miles southeast of Phoenix that is operated by the GEO Group under a contract for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry.
Shortly after I arrived, I was assigned a caseworker, Yolanda Garcia, who encouraged me to take advantage of the facility’s Continuum of Care (CoC) program. I heard some positive and some skeptical comments in the yard, but wanted to decide for myself. Within a few weeks, I knew that I wanted to make a change and believed that the CoC could provide me with the path.
The program has two parts that make it so worthwhile. First, it provides classes, training and one-on-one case managers within the facility. Second, it offers support for participants as they leave and return to the community.
At Florence West, some of the classes I completed covered substance abuse, cognitive thinking, anger management, and money management. From the classroom, I learned how to identify my triggers and how to overcome them. Those lessons put many things in perspective and prepared me for reintegrating back into the community post-release.
After my release last June, I returned to Kingman where I currently hold two jobs. Still, the CoC continues to have a real impact on my life. If you haven’t spent time in prison, it is difficult to understand that it can be a challenge to meet basic needs at first. Working with my in-custody case manager, we came up with a tailored plan for my personal situation once I was out. For those that need it, the CoC provides clothing, transportation and housing. It also connects participants with Arizona nonprofits that assist in programs, such as for addiction, and provide housing.
The CoC also assigns each participant a post-release case manager, who you connect with just prior to release, which has been an important part of my journey. I have a weekly, voluntary check-in with my post-release caseworker and, if I need help – substance abuse challenges, need to vent, or ask questions or request assistance – I can call them 24×7.
I know that I have changed. I am better at handling myself. I am more equipped to think, adapt, and overcome difficulties, and my decision-making process has changed for the better. My goal going forward is just to be a better person to society, to stay positive and participate positively as a citizen. I am reaching higher and farther to be a better person because I had previously spent time in a place where I didn’t want to be, and it wasn’t doing me any good and it wasn’t doing society any good.
Although I still face challenges, today I am three years clean and looking toward the future.
The Continuum of Care program helped me a lot, and I only had the chance to take advantage of it because I was sent to Florence West. As a CoC participant, I had a support network that I could call and rely upon anytime, even now. Many folks who have spent years incarcerated don’t have anyone supportive waiting for them upon release. I know that I am one of many who have benefitted from this support, and I hope Arizona continues to understand how helpful re-entry programs like this are in reducing chances of reoffending. Having training and assistance has given me the confidence and motivation to look toward the future. What I accomplished in prison through the CoC has given me a second chance to do better for myself, community and society.
Then on April 6, 2021, I was presented with the “The Gamechanger Award.” It was an honor to receive this award for my hard work and dedication to succeed in life and society. Through all my struggles there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If I can do it, so can you. I believe in you! Just believe in yourself and doors to success will open.
Dakota Storm Jones is an Arizona resident and member of the Lakota Sioux and Assiniboine Tribe.