Behind Bars, Career Planners Helped This Returning Citizen Grow

Three years after he found himself in an Iowa prison, John C. Barnes III looks back on that arrest as the shock he needed to build a better life – and he’s grateful for help from the IowaWORKS advisor who kept driving him to pursue a real career.

Advisor Terry Zmolek “pushed me,” a now-free Barnes said by telephone from Kansas earlier this fall. “He said, ‘You could do so much better with your life than the direction that you’re currently going in.’ He said, 'You have a chance to be something more than you are.’

“He kept on me.”

Zmolek is one of four Reentry Career Planners who provide Iowa inmates with career counseling and classes behind prison walls as part of a joint program between Iowa Workforce Development (IowaWORKS) and the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Zmolek estimates that he sees 750 to 1,000 inmates each year, beginning roughly six months before each is scheduled to be released. Reentry Career Planners teach resume skills, evaluate work histories, and try to match each “returning citizen” with a potential career on the outside.

Nearly 300 inmates also are involved in a variety of registered apprenticeships behind bars, covering everything from welding and maintenance-based skills to cooking and baking.

Barnes, a former U.S. Marine, met Zmolek while Barnes was serving a five-year sentence at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility following a guilty plea to charges stemming from a series of stolen airport rental cars. The other reentry career planners work at Iowa prisons in Mitchellville, Newton, and Rockwell City.

Zmolek said he usually begins working with inmates on job applications roughly three weeks before their scheduled release, focusing intently on a particular community where the inmate is expected to land. Zmolek works closely with employers during this process and encourages them to take a chance on unconventional workers -- but he doesn’t immediately stress the financial incentives that exist to help them hire a returning citizen. That conversation needs to be secondary, Zmolek said, because the most important thing is to place released inmates in jobs where they have room to grow.

Finding stable, productive work for returning citizens benefits both public safety and the Iowa economy, according to Brian Pibal, the reentry coordinator in Rockwell City. Pibal noted on an October episode of IWD’s Mission Employable podcast that the Iowa Department of Corrections released 5,200 inmates across the state in 2020.

Of the nearly 7,800 inmates that were being held in Iowa prisons last month, roughly 97 percent are scheduled for an eventual release. The only question is what they’ll do when they get out.

“Employment is a huge factor in recidivism,” Zmolek said. “If they don’t have a job, then they’ll need to do something else to make money.”

“I try to lead them to a career path, not just a job,” he said. “If they’re a welder, then they shouldn’t be working fast food for $8 an hour… I don’t want them to just be treated like spare bodies. I want employers to hire the person, not the tax credit.”

Kelly Graplar, Deputy CEO of the Iowa Lakes Regional Water System in northwest Iowa, said her organization, on balance, has had positive results from hiring returned citizens. Ex-offenders may come with additional complications, Graplar notes, such as an increased need for time off to meet with counselors or parole officers. (This can be difficult if they work in the field, miles away from town.) Her organization has hired three ex-offenders in recent years, and the results have gotten better with each hire.

“It was a learning curve for us, too,” Graplar said. “Though, when the drive to work is there, when they really want to prove themselves, that's when they kick butt and are greatly appreciated.”

All prison classes with re-entry career planners are voluntary, in an effort to focus resources on the inmates most invested in success. Zmolek estimates that roughly 85 percent of the men he has worked with avoided new legal troubles after they left prison. (In comparison, the Iowa Department of Corrections earlier this year reported that 38.7 percent of all the inmates it releases, on average, return to prison within three years.)

For his part, Barnes describes prison as the shock he needed to make better life choices.

“I just needed to get my head out of my rear end,” he said last month. “I learned fairly quickly that things weren’t going to work on the route I was on.”

With Zmolek’s help and time off for good behavior, Barnes left prison in 2019 for a position driving a forklift in Mason City. He later moved on to jobs at a factory in Grinnell and on a nearby farm. Last year, a college acquaintance called and offered Barnes a position managing an 18,000-acre farm in Kansas. He accepted it as soon as he cleared parole.

Now, four harvest seasons after his original arrest, Barnes spent the fall in Kansas routinely logging work weeks of 80-plus hours to bring in beans, milo, sorghum, and wheat: “We never stop moving around here.”

For this, Barnes expects to take home roughly $68,000 after taxes in 2021 – on top of his company truck and the rent-free use of a farmhouse.

Barnes considers himself lucky – most prisoners don’t have a degree in agronomy to fall back on – and he tries to help others when he can.

He recently hired two “returned citizens” to work on the farm he manages, and he acknowledges the potential for problems. But he plans to hire another recent release – a young Iowan who he likely will ask to move to Kansas when the young man clears parole next year.

Many Iowa businesses are discovering returning citizens to be loyal and productive employees, Zmolek said, because they’re immensely grateful for the second chance. Plus, they represent a credible source of labor for employers who are starving for workers to make their companies grow.

“Right now, this is the easiest my job has been in years,” he said. “I get a lot more emails from employers now asking about guys than I used to. They’re definitely looking past backgrounds.”

Barnes considers his background as just another part of the way things were meant to be.

“When I went to college, I never would have thought I’d be doing this,” he said. “Prison sure as hell wasn’t part of my plan. But I wouldn’t change what happened for anything.

“I get to lead this really great life now.”

For more information on returning citizens and the programs available to assist in using them to help build your workforce, visit