Vanessa Thompson had an idea for solving Indiana’s abandoned housing problem while watching television on her bunk in one of America’s oldest facilities — Indianapolis Women’s Prison. Thompson heard Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett discuss Indiana’s 10,000 abandoned houses, a problem resulting from factory closures and the mortgage crisis.
Her idea was to have newly released inmates restore the abandoned houses, thus creating with their “sweat equity” a safe and affordable place for their families to live.
“It’s a double restoration – not just of the house but of the person,” said Thompson in an interview with NPR. She continued, “What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need more than anything? Ownership of minds, of bodies and of our physical homes.”
Thompson and three other women in the Indianapolis women’s prison recently presented video testimony to the state legislature. The video detailed their idea to assist women transitioning out of prison by teaching them construction skills.
The women settled on “Constructing Our Future” as the name of this re-entry company.
The impetus for their courage was a class Thompson and the other inmates had taken on “public policy” taught by volunteer teacher, Kelsey Kauffman. In it the women studied bills currently being considered by the Indiana legislature. They practiced writing policy amendments, learned how to contact politicians and the press. When their time came to act on their own proposal, they were prepared.
John Nally, director of education for the Indiana Department of Corrections, gives an enormous amount of credit to Kauffman for creating the public policy class in 2012, reports NPR.
Nally said Kauffman has a fierce belief in the women’s capacity to create, regardless of their crimes.
Before Thompson ventured to video-chat with Habitat for Humanity, YouthBuild, Yale Law School and local community corporations to learn about “sweat equity,” she acquired a textbook about low-income housing policy and the women studied it closely.
Thompson and her class- mates gained the help of a supporter who set up a Go- FundMe for them and the women wrote grant proposals to raise $200,000 for tools and equipment and to hire staff for their project, said NPR.
Toni Burns, 44, who is serving a 30-year sentence on an attempted murder conviction was quoted saying, “Our labor is often discounted as women; if they give us vocational programs at all, it’s always something like cosmetology instead of auto repair or forklift driving.”
Burns and other students learning restoration skills would have to complete 5,000 hours of “sweat labor” to finish the course they propose. Burns expressed concern that this program is more likely to be implemented in the men prisons faster than in the women’s.
Although the Indiana State Assembly approved Constructing Our Future’s proposal in a unanimous resolution, the women are still waiting for the project to be set in motion.