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Coming home after prison is tough. For rural Ohioans, it can be even harder

In Mount Gilead, a large red-brick building with a clocktower stands in a ray of sunlight, birds encircling overhead.
Mount Gilead, northeast of Columbus, is home to one of Ohio's newest reentry coalitions. Residents there hope to focus on the overcoming the rural county's unique challenges.

This article was originally published on Feb. 27, 2024.

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

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

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

Each year, around 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.

The infrastructure needed to assist people like Hart just isn’t in Morrow County, said Tori Dimick, a reentry coordinator at Southeast Healthcare. She hopes to build a better support system for the formerly incarcerated with the help of a number of county organizations and agencies.

A new coalition

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

They want to support their own. So the people who are returning to Morrow County, [they] live in Morrow County, most [were] raised in Morrow County,” Dimick said. “These are our community members as well, and they need the same supports that we do.”

Two women sit at a desk in front of white boards.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Tori Dimick (right) headed the Morrow County reentry coalition's first meeting in late January.

Initially, Morrow County was going to form a joint coalition with nearby and more populated Delaware County. But Dimick said it was clear the counties had distinct needs. They wanted to focus on the extra set of challenges that people like Hart face when it comes to reentering into a rural area, like limited public transportation.

Hart can’t drive, but still has to find her way to neighboring counties for doctors appointments, counseling and mandatory court hearings that can be up to an hour away. Dimick said, for many of her clients, meeting standards of parole is challenging without reliable transportation.

“If you have a random drug screening, you just find out the morning of and that's not really possible,” Dimick said.

Rural recidivism

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

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

63 of Ohio’s 88 counties have these coalitions, but every county needs one, according to Ronni Burkes, deputy director of the office of reentry for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation. She said that’s especially true for rural areas. While urban coalitions often have a wealth of nonprofits and agencies that can show up to the table, rural communities have to think outside the box, she said.

“Maybe there's not a food bank, but maybe there are organizations that give out food vouchers,” Burkes said. “So you really have to be creative and think about how to provide those services. It may not look the way we think of it.”

Connecting the community

Dimick hopes Morrow’s reentry coalition will be a place where they can spotlight the support the community does have, like active churches and committed volunteer groups.

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

“It can be something that they can just go to all in the same day and, and connect with those resources, so that they aren't feeling as lost and slowly moving the ball. It feels more in their control,” said Dimick.

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

“For Morrow County to be stepping up and wanting to make a change, it’s pretty awesome,” Hart said.

The close-knit, welcoming community is part of why she wants to return home. But to be able to, she’ll need a little help.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.