Bloomington nonprofit New Leaf – New Life has halted its education programs inside the Monroe County Correctional Center since the jail closed its doors to visitors in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Staff members and people who are incarcerated said they have missed the support and social connection offered by the programs.
“I think that COVID has just significantly slowed things down,” said Jordan McIntire, executive director of the nonprofit. “Just, you know, a very big distance between people.”
New Leaf – New Life supports people who are incarcerated at and recently released from the Monroe County jail through workshops, group activities and mentorship programs inside and outside the facility, according to its website. The nonprofit works to improve the lives of people incarcerated inside the jail and assist their reentry into society.
Senior Emily Moffett-Heitler, a student intern at NLNL studying in the IU School of Social Work, said the nonprofit’s work is irreplaceable for many people who are incarcerated because they have no one else in their life to rely on.
“I just think that once someone gets involved in the incarceration system, they're tossed aside by society,” she said. “We're the only ones providing them with that help and with emotional and social support.”
McIntire said since the start of the pandemic, the nonprofit has had to communicate with their incarcerated clients through handwritten letters sent through a dedicated in-house mailbox in the Monroe County jail. She said this has made it harder to learn and answer to their clients’ needs on time.
“So now, any conversation, there’s a lag period of a couple of days in between,” she said. “Then also, there's that lack of efficient resources, but also just the benefit of being able to talk and see a person that you know cares about you and is trying to help you – that social component and emotional component.”
McIntire said the nonprofit used to organize about 50 in-jail workshops per month focused on self-care, creative writing and job and life skills, each with eight to 12 people attending. She said all but one rehabilitation workshop has been canceled, and that one weekly workshop has been conducted entirely on Zoom.
Assistant Director Stacy Flynn said now that the in-jail programs have halted, people who are incarcerated are missing out on an in-person emotional outlet and may feel more forgotten and lonely.
“They're even more cut off from outside folks that can help resource for them when they're unable to do it themselves,” she said.
However, Flynn said NLNL has remained open throughout the pandemic and has supported the incarcerated population to the best extent they can.
“I'm very proud of the fact that we as a small organization have maintained staff here every single day,” she said. “I'm hoping that people know that we are still here and available for them.”
Christopher Lee Dwigans, who is currently incarcerated in Monroe County jail, said in a mailed letter to the Indiana Daily Student that despite the pandemic, NLNL has helped him prepare legal documents, apply for rehabilitation centers and identification documents and find housing and clothing. He said he’s thankful for people at the nonprofit for helping him get a chance in life in a world that looks down on felons.
“NL-NL has done so much for me personally pertaining to my re-entry back into society and even has dropped me a kind word just to let me know that I’m not alone in this world, and there’s still hope and people that care,” he said.
New Leaf - New Life is looking for monetary donations and gifts such as books, clothing and PPE. Information can be found on its website.