Learning to leave prison behind: Metro Community College program helps inmates transition back into society

Learning to leave prison behind: Metro Community College program helps inmates transition back into society
World-Herald News Service

Christina Vollman lived in prison for 16 years as society sped past in a flurry of cellphone advancements and social media evolution.

Her time in the Nebraska prison system was rough. Vollman, who has bipolar disorder, fought with inmates and guards. Her behavior delayed her release from the prison system by years.

Now out, Vollman participates in a Metro Community College program overseen largely by staffers who have criminal histories themselves.

The Metro 180 Re-Entry Assistance Program helps those in prison, on work release and out of prison with emotional support, skills in computer and cellphone use, résumé writing and banking. It also lines up for-credit classes and work training for them. A grant from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services formalized the program two years ago, and the grant was renewed in 2016 for two more years.

The funding stems from state prison legislation passed in 2014 that called for more job training, mental health care, education and life skills training for inmates. The bill, supported by then-State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha and others, awarded grants to Metro, mental health agencies, construction groups, ministries and other organizations.

Prison education programs can lower the risk of a return to incarceration and increase the likelihood that a person with a criminal history will find a job, according to a Rand Corp. report published in 2013.

Vollman, 39, who got involved in the Metro program while on a work detail at the Community Corrections Center-Omaha, gives personal testimony to the program’s effectiveness. So does program director Diane Good-Collins, who has her own story of tragedy, incarceration and redemption that began with taking classes while she was in the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York.

“It was life-changing,” Good-Collins said.

The Rand report examined dozens of studies of prison education conducted between 1980 and 2011.

While acknowledging that more must be done to “get inside the black box and identify the characteristics of effective programs,” the authors said research indicated that prison education on average lowered the odds by 43 percent of participants returning to prison.

Further, the odds of obtaining jobs for those who participated in either academic or vocational education programs went up 13 percent.

David Houchins, a special education professor who was on the Rand project’s scientific review team, said it’s logical that educational programs for those in prison and just out of prison increase the odds that they will feel connected to society, find jobs and assimilate. Houchins is at Georgia State University.

Metro is the only college in the state providing wide-ranging programs in numerous prisons in Nebraska, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department said. York College offers a program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women.

At a ceremony last month at the Community Corrections Center in Omaha for inmates who had completed courses or training through Metro, Mello said the 2014 legislation was doing what it was intended to do.

“I feel optimistic today,” said Mello, who lost the Omaha mayoral election last week. “This is everything I thought it would be when we passed LB 907 three years ago.”

Vollman, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, committed a robbery in Nebraska City that led to her incarceration in 2000.

“I was so addicted (and) out of my mind, it just was ridiculous,” she said.

Her parents, Deanna and William Vollman, raised her son, Bailey, who is 20 now.

Good-Collins was in the York prison for a while at the same time Vollman was there. Good-Collins remembers Vollman as a problem inmate who needed help.

Vollman attempted suicide while in prison and finally was given medication for her mental illness. That was a game-changer, she said. That, along with her mother’s steady support through the horrible years, kept her going.

“When nothing I did made sense, she still stuck by me,” Vollman said of her mother.

While at the Community Corrections Center in Omaha last year, Vollman, originally from Syracuse, Nebraska, got involved in a noncredit Metro program that helps inmates and the newly released with support and life skills.

Vollman, who got out of prison last year, learned how to pay bills and use cellphones and computers. Good-Collins helped her find a job at a South Omaha bakery.

She now lives with four other women in an Omaha drug-rehab living facility called Oxford House, although she has been free of booze and drugs since she went into prison in 2000.

Her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor is a staffer in the Metro 180 Re-Entry Assistance Program, Sharri Wirth.

Vollman is taking English and math classes at Metro and working full time boxing up goods at the bakery. Being free is exhilarating and overwhelming. The right to turn on a light switch feels odd, she said.

Doing her own laundry was a thrill. “I was so excited about bleach, I almost cried.”

In prison she had roommates. At Oxford House she has her own room, and she felt terrified of sleeping in a room by herself. For a long time she kept the light on. She went to Walmart and bought a large stuffed toy monkey with which she sleeps.

Her mother, Deanna, said she was delighted by the Metro program’s support of her daughter.

“The only thing that I would like to say is I’m very proud of how far she has come,” Deanna Vollman said. “She had no idea what the world was about when she got out. They’ve encouraged her so much.”

The Metro 180 Re-Entry Assistance Program has six full-time staffers and three part-timers.

Good-Collins, director of the program, said she began drinking and taking drugs at age 10 while growing up in a family of 12 kids in Minnesota and Montana.

Seventeen years ago she left an apartment one night with a friend to get drugs. A fire started in the apartment, and her 8-year-old daughter died of smoke inhalation. Good-Collins pleaded no contest to manslaughter, and prosecutors dropped a robbery charge against her from a prior incident.

Good-Collins said the memory of her daughter, Lara, has “kept me clean and sober” for 17 years.

“She’s my motivator,” Good-Collins said, weeping.

Good-Collins was encouraged by a teacher in the York prison, Diane Brune, to take a college course. Good-Collins was dubious because she had no confidence. But taking three courses boosted her spirit. She attended church services and recovery sessions.

She was moved to the Omaha Community Corrections Center and was released in late 2003. Metro first hired her as a part-time worker, and that grew into full-time positions in adult basic education. Eventually she oversaw Metro Express, an adult education and computer center at 3002 S. 24th St.

Good-Collins, 50, is married, and she and her husband, Steve Collins, have a ministry in several prisons. She earned a degree from Metro in 2013.

Over the past nine months, the Metro program has served more than 600 participants with credit courses, forklift and manufacturing technology certification, workshops, support and other offerings. It’s funded by a $1.37 million grant through the Corrections Department.

Vollman recently attended a Wednesday night support session on Metro’s Fort Omaha campus. The group included Metro Re-Entry Assistance Program staffers and inmates from the Community Corrections Center.

Over chili and nachos they shared their victories and fears. One of the men talked about his concern that he would miss buses and be late for appointments.

“Let me tell you this,” Vollman interjected in her loud voice. “If I can figure out the bus system, anyone can.”

Vollman talked with the group about how she blew up at Oxford House when someone ate her cheese. Vollman said she reverted to her prison mentality, ranting and swearing.

Then it occurred to Vollman: She didn’t have to be a fighter anymore. She didn’t have to protect her possessions with rage.

She told herself to break out of the prison mold. She told herself to be a human being.

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