Columbia recovery house keeps former inmates on the straight and narrow

Thursday, February 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST
In2Action is a Christian-based recovery house in north Columbia that helps former inmates stay out of prison. In2Action provides safe and affordable housing and helps offenders apply for work or enroll in school. The house is a network of support in which the men of the In2Action house engage in dialogue, do chores and pray together.

COLUMBIA — The way Dan Hanneken sees it, there are three types of guys who come out of prison: those who will never even think about committing another crime, those who will find crime no matter what and everyone else.

The last group wants to stay straight. The odds aren't in their favor.

Hanneken runs the nonprofit In2Action, which does everything possible to increase the odds that those at risk for committing crimes will stay out of prison. In2Action provides safe and affordable housing and helps former offenders apply for work or enroll in school.

It's a job that involves not only teaching new skills, but helping former offenders unlearn old habits, Hanneken said.

"The whole 'tough guy' thing is a real struggle for a lot of the guys," Hanneken said.

According to a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011, Missouri ranked in the bottom quarter of states when it comes to recidivism. Fifty-four percent of those released in 2004 returned to prison within three years.

Hanneken and his staff face a tangle of challenges: unemployment, addiction and mental health issues. Once one is under control, another rears its head.

To break the cycle of isolation, self-destructive behavior, criminal activity and imprisonment, Hanneken and his staff treat every interaction as a learning opportunity. A sink full of dirty dishes or a too-loud television becomes a dialogue about shared expectations. If someone comes home drunk or high, Hanneken reminds the resident that one of the conditions of living in the In2Action house is to stay clean or leave.

For many, it's a daily struggle.

What keeps Hanneken and the men of the In2Action house hopeful is the network of support and the sense of stability they've found in one another.

Hanneken is a licensed social worker and active Christian. He endorses social science research and also requires each In2Action resident to join a church. The language of Christianity gives Hanneken and the residents a way to express the thoughts and feelings many of them have kept bottled up for decades.

At a weekly Bible study, more than one resident spoke of the temptation to "feed the flesh," a nod to the struggle with addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex or even video games among the residents. When one resident thanked another for teaching him how to use an iron that morning before a job interview, the one who helped him replied, "It was just God working through me. I offer it all up to Him."

Religion as a shared language and their shared experiences in prison form the basis of their community.

Like the men he works with, Hanneken has spent time in prison. When he got out, he said he had some difficulty finding a job, a struggle that got him thinking about the need for an organization like In2Action.

He found work with the Missouri Department of Corrections helping other prisoners transition to life after prison. Later, he studied social work at MU and received a bachelor's degree and master's degree.

Hanneken started In2Action in February 2012 with the help of state and local grants and private donations as well as support from his church, The Crossing on Southland Drive.

The residents pay what they can for rent each month. As long as they're working, looking for work or in school, Hanneken said, there's no pressure to move out.

It's not always easy for Hanneken to convince people that "his guys," as he calls the residents, deserve a share of the limited resources available, but he understands the skepticism.

"If you ask 10 people in the community what they think needs to be done to make it a better place, I guarantee very few, if any, will say they think we need to do a better job rehabilitating former offenders," Hanneken said.

Despite this skepticism, Hanneken believes everyone in Columbia has a stake in making the community more welcoming for former offenders. He has discussed this goal with his fellow members of the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence, though Hanneken said the group has yet to come up with any specific policy recommendations.

"Every week, 380 people are released from prison in Missouri," he said. "Where are they going? They're scanning your groceries at Walmart and making your sandwich at Subway. If they're not successful, they'll start taking victims in your community."

Rehabilitation could reduce recidivism rates

Harvard sociologist Devah Pager studies employment outcomes among former offenders. In an email interview, Pager said the term "corrections" speaks to the once commonly-held belief that prisons could and should try to correct criminal behavior, not just punish it.

"There was the general belief that the criminal justice could help rehabilitate offenders, moving them away from lives of crime to become more productive citizens," Pager said.

That started to change in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon, helped popularize the "tough on crime" stance that emphasized punishment over rehabilitation. Because it was difficult to prove that rehabilitation programs were effective at preventing recidivism, Pager said, the notion of a rehabilitative criminal justice system fell out of favor.

"Many grew disillusioned with the idea that the correctional system could do more than simply house offenders," Pager said. "Investing in rehabilitation seemed futile."

Despite the fact that a growing number of studies have shown the effectiveness of certain targeted efforts toward rehabilitation, Pager said the public and policymakers remain skeptical.

In her book "Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," Pager writes that states have shifted resources away from probation and parole offices as the American prison population ballooned. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. incarceration rate jumped from less than 100 prisoners for every 100,000 residents in 1972 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 residents in 2012.

Faith-based organizations like In2Action, Pager said, play a vital role when it comes to helping rehabilitate offenders, whom she said face enormous social, psychological and economic challenges when they're released.

"Many offenders are released from prison determined to set things right, to get a steady job and to provide for their families," Pager said. "Instead, they confront a series of obstacles, rejections and barriers to finding work and housing. It becomes difficult to preserve one's faith and resolve in the face of such repeated rejection."

Since opening its doors nearly two years ago, In2Action has served 46 residents. Nearly 30 percent were employed full time within a month of arriving at the house, and that number rose to 70 percent after five months.

To remain in the home, residents must be employed, looking for work or enrolled in college.

Data from the Missouri Department of Corrections show that 26 percent of offenders released in Boone County between 2005 and 2011 were employed either full or part-time after three months.

Missouri lawmakers also seem to have recognized the need to prioritize offender re-entry into society.

In 2005, former Gov. Matt Blunt signed an executive order that created the Missouri Reentry Process Steering Team, a group with representatives from a variety state agencies, including the departments of Corrections Mental Health and Social Services. Their goal was to learn how to work together to make offender re-entry into society as successful as possible.

The committee researched some of the barriers to successful re-entry and committed to addressing them. According to a 2007 report from the Missouri Department of Corrections, when the committee found out unemployment made a big difference in recidivism rates, the Missouri Department of Corrections partnered with the Missouri Department of Workforce Development to teach recently released offenders job skills and connect them with local employers.

The committee examined the discharge process for inmates with mental health issues upon reviewing data that showed that 75 percent of offenders with mental health problems returned to prison within five years.

Most importantly for Hanneken, the committee sought to strengthen its ties with local agencies and nonprofits. In 2008, the Missouri Department of Corrections made funds available for local groups who wanted to work with recent offenders.

A man's addiction poses challenges upon prison release

In2Action resident and house manager Gregory Hunt has been in and out of prison since 1993. Like many former offenders, Hunt found that the self-destructive behaviors that put him in prison were hard to shake when he kept returning to the same places with the same problems.

Hunt was raised by his grandmother in rural Barton County. He started drinking when he was 12 and stopped going to school at 14. He bounced in and out of foster care and spent his first night in the Barton County Jail at age 17. Three years later, he was charged twice for driving while intoxicated and spent six months in jail.

Four years after his release, Hunt sold marijuana to an undercover police officer and was sentenced to two years in prison. He spent the next 20 years in and out of prison, halfway houses and community release centers. He finished his last sentence, for check forgery, in 2011.

When he got out, he said he had good intentions, but that wasn't enough. Two hours after he got off the bus in Columbia, he was downtown with a pint of whiskey in his hand.

About a month after Hunt arrived in Columbia, he was drinking whiskey on a bench on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, a few feet from the clearing where he slept each night. Usually, he said, passers-by would cycle, run or walk right past him, but one day a man stopped.

"Did you hear the good news?" the man asked.

Hunt said at that moment, he wasn't in the mood for a sermon. He had been baptized in  prison in 1993, though he saw it more as an insurance policy against eternal damnation than a reason to change his behavior.

"I just thought it was a magic pill," Hunt said. "But when I went down under that water, I still come back up Greg, not some new creature."

The man on the trail that day, Scott Claybrook, was intent on convincing Hunt that he could help him make a change. Claybrook stopped by the day center Hunt sometimes frequented, determined to convince him to get in touch with his friend Dan Hanneken. Hunt said he wasn't interested in giving up drinking.

Claybrook wasn't deterred. He'd fought alcohol and drug addiction in the past, and he said he could see Hunt was looking for a change in his life.

Eventually, Claybrook's persistence paid off.  On June 10, Hunt quit drinking. About a month later, he met up with Hanneken. The two had coffee, then toured the house, where Hunt met some of the other residents.

"I just had this feeling in my spirit," Hunt said, "I could feel Dan's love for people. He comes from a background that I come from."

To meet people who had overcome their addictions, who overcame their criminal pasts, was eye-opening for Hunt. Hanneken and the men living in the In2Action house showed him that a different kind of life was possible. Upon this realization, Hunt hit what he calls his version of rock bottom.

"I believe rock bottom is when you quit digging the hole."

The road to recovery is a lonely journey

Good intentions, however,  aren't always sufficient when it comes to living outside the prison walls.

Although Hunt went through alcohol addiction treatment in prison multiple times, it was only a matter of time before he relapsed upon release.

"I'd say, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to go to AA. I'm going to do whatever it takes to stay sober,'" Hunt said. "But I never succeeded."

Research by Kelli Canada, a professor of social work at MU, shows that when someone is trying to get sober or end a pattern of criminal behavior, it doesn't help to spend time with the people who have contributed to their past problems.

But, as a participant in one of Canada's studies said, recovery can be a lonely process, which is why Canada said it's so important for released offenders to develop a social network of people who understand what they're going through and won't judge them based on their past.

Substance abuse, mental health and lack of employment are all serious problems released offenders could face. But what these factors don't capture is the need for what Hanneken calls "a change on the inside."

For Hunt and some of the other residents of the In2Action house, that means reckoning with a powerful social anxiety that can lead to isolation. It means reaching out, whether to Hanneken or a staff member, someone from church or a housemate, when life's challenges seem overwhelming. It means asking for help.

In2Action provides refuge for displaced offender

Richard Brown, 22, has considered himself a loner his entire life. His dad wasn't in the picture, and when Brown was in middle school, he stopped attending school. He said his mother was fairly lenient. If he didn't want to go, he didn't have to.

"I just stayed in the house all the time," Brown said. "I didn't want to deal with people."

Brown said he spent most of his time playing video games. Sometimes he'd go days without leaving his bedroom.

He didn't want to discuss exactly how this tendency toward isolation influenced his path to prison, but the Missouri State Highway Patrol's website shows that in May 2009, when Brown was 18, he pleaded guilty to three counts of deviate sexual assault. According to the site, Brown was 17 at the time of the offense. He is listed as a sex offender. 

Brown was sentenced to seven years in prison, but because he had no prior charges or convictions, he served 180 days, or what's known as a "shock treatment," and was then released with five years of probation.

After his release, he spent time in a transitional home mostly holed up in his room playing video games. He flunked out of all of his classes at Moberly Area Community College. The only time residents of the house talked to one another, Brown said, was when they argued.

"Everybody who came in there was fresh from prison, so they were really standoffish to each other," Brown said. "If somebody got angry, there was going to be a fight."

After two years, a neighbor found out about Brown's sexual assault conviction and calculated that due to a mapping error on the part of the Boone County Sheriff's Department, he was unknowingly living too close to a middle school, which was a violation of his probation. When the neighbor called the Columbia Daily Tribune, Brown's probation officer told him he was going to have to find a new home.

Brown was scared he would end up homeless. He had saved up some money but not enough for a deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. When his probation officer recommended that he give Hanneken a call, he did.

Hanneken told Brown that he could only help him if he was serious about about working on his isolationist attitude.

"At the time, I wasn't really responsible. I was immature." Brown said. "When he (Hanneken) said I needed to make more progress, I thought, 'OK, I don't want to hear those words, but I'll act like I understand.'"

Despite his initial resistance, Brown said he was attracted to the fact that In2Action was a Christian house. He became a Christian in prison, but he said he was disappointed with how much he had gotten away from his faith since his release.

His first few months in the house, Brown said he resisted making changes. Hanneken and some of the other residents confronted Brown about the amount of time he spent playing video games.

"I realized I have a serious problems with video games," Brown said. "Games are an addiction to me, and they're impeding me really bad."

In May of last year, Hanneken gave Brown an ultimatum: Start working on his video game addiction or find a new place to live.

"That's when I realized it had to stop," Brown said. "If I keep doing what I want to do all the time, I'm going to be out on the streets for the rest of my life."

Brown said he considered moving out, but he knew his isolation and his apathy would only continue if he didn't stay in the house with people who could truly hold him accountable.

Brown quit playing video games, and now he said he fills his time by hanging out with a good friend who he met at the In2Action house, reading or working. This past fall, he was back at Moberly Area Community College, where he said he did well. He took the spring semester off to save some money, and he's working about 35 hours a week at a local restaurant.

Brown said he's also become more sociable and comfortable with the other guys in the house since he moved in.

At the In2Action house, he said, the residents' mentality is completely different. They talk through their problems instead of getting physically aggressive. There are no doors on the bedrooms to encourage the men to socialize in the common space.

The residents share communal bikes and make meals from the produce they grow in a backyard vegetable garden. They attend daily morning prayers and a weekly combination Bible study and house meeting.

It's far from perfect, Hanneken said. But Hanneken has convinced "his guys" that even small steps should be celebrated and each day presents new opportunities to learn from one another.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.