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She served 18 years in prison. Now she's getting a fresh start in a program built by incarcerated women

Constructing Our Future was conceived, created and is being run by women who have served prison time.
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Posted at 9:23 AM, Feb 27, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — A kitchen sink, a well-stocked fridge, a bedroom door — these and other seemingly mundane things in this small three-bedroom house on the north-side bring immeasurable joy to Joe Walls.

“When you’re incarcerated, you’re sharing a space with 60 to 80 women," Walls said. "You have no privacy, so that bedroom is just a blessing."

Walls, 59, moved here in December, just before Christmas, after spending more than 18 years in prison. She has two roommates living in the house, both of whom are also rebuilding their lives after incarceration.

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Joe Walls

More pictures: Rebuilding lives at the Constructing Our Future house

"It’s just a very welcoming environment," Walls said. "It’s a platform to help you get started in a new life. That’s what it’s doing for me right now."

This house is the "home base" for Constructing Our Future, a non-profit organization conceived, created and operated by women who have served prison time.

"We know the problems inherent in our state's reentry process. We know it because we’ve gone through it," said Michelle Daniel Jones, Constructing Our Future's acting director. "We need to be a part of solving those problems. And if the state or people don't give us a seat at the table, we create our own table."

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Michelle Daniel Jones (left) and Joe Walls look in a refrigerator at the Constructing Our Future house on Feb 14, 2023.

Constructing Our Future sprouted from the minds of students in a public policy class at the Indiana Women's Prison in 2015.

Jones, 50, was one of the women in that class. She spent more than 20 years in prison before her release in 2018. Now, she's a full-time student pursuing a doctorate degree at New York University's American Studies Program.

The students in that public policy class knew housing is a desperate need for many of the 1,200 women who leave prison every year in Indiana. Many of those formerly incarcerated women have alienated family and friends. Many are working to overcome their own addiction issues or trauma.

Some have been locked up so long that their closest loved ones have passed away.

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Michelle Daniel Jones

"If you don't have a family member or friend that you trust to go live with, you are on the streets in Indiana," Jones said.

Sarah Jo Pender was one of the women in that class. She spoke to WRTV recently at the Rockville Correctional Facility, where she’s serving a 110-year sentence.

“We were learning about different housing in the United States, and what the housing laws were for Indiana. And then we came up with this plan about how to get women into affordable housing," Pender said.

The program has changed from that original idea that sprouted inside the prison walls, but Pender said she’s thrilled to know it’s really working and helping women in desperate need.

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Sarah Jo Pender speaks to WRTV at the Rockville Correctional Facility on Jan. 13, 2023.

“We're doing more like transitional housing, but also with life coaching and individual counseling and whatever you need," Pender said. "We'll make sure that you get the resources and that they're going to help set you up for success."

The students wanted to build a place without intense supervision and prison-like rules, Jones said. They wanted an environment where the women could regain dignity that was stripped away by prison-life.

That's why Constructing Our Future signed a lease on this house in 2021. The house has been operating as home base for two years and has served eight women so far.

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Joe Walls

"It’s comfortable. It’s clean, we’re in a safe place. That’s the main thing on your mind when you’re coming out," said Walls, who has been a free woman for about two months. "For them to come together and generate this idea and make it a reality was just a lifesaver for me, because when I got out I had nowhere to go."

The house has room for four women. Constructing Our Future's leaders know the need is far greater.

"It was important for us to start small to prove that our model works and that doing a non-carceral living environment for women being led by people who are directly impacted can work," Jones said.

The group wants to prove to donors and policy makers that a "non-carceral" approach is better than other more restrictive group homes.

The women who live here have jobs and pay some of their income toward rent and utilities. Walls said the fees are on a sliding scale depending on how much residents earn. They can live here up to two years and pay no more than $450 a month, Walls said.

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Joe Walls speaks in the family room of the Constructing Our Future house. "For them to come together and generate this idea and make it a reality was just a lifesaver for me, because when I got out I had nowhere to go," Walls said.

Most of the money for the residents' rent, food and necessities is funded by grants and donations, Jones said.

"We come into this work understanding we're not here to make a profit," Jones said. "We need to help subsidize these women so that they can get on their feet and move out and move out in a strong way."

She pointed to one of Walls' roommates, who is moving out sometime in March. While at the house, Jones said the roommate has maintained a job and completed certification programs to become a drug and domestic violence counselor.

"I mean, she's leveled up and now she has a career, right? She's less likely to be a person who goes back to prison now because of the many things she's had the time to line up her life," Jones said.

In the short time Walls has been out, she has started a new job, reconnected with her daughter and hopes to regain her driver's license. Walls dreams of starting her own business some day.

"At the end of the day that's what Constructing Our Future wants to be about," Jones said. "Give people a minute to line their stuff up and fly."

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Joe Walls shows the desktop computer residents share in the Construction Our Future house. Walls said she used this computer to make a resume.

Constructing Our Future has two paid staff members, but Jones is not one of them. Even though her title is board chair and acting executive director, she is a volunteer.

The paid positions — a housing coordinator and an operations director — are part-time and work directly to keep the non-profit running while Jones completes her education and writes her dissertation.

While still a young organization, Constructing Our Future is growing. In its 2020 annual report, the organization reported revenue of 70,000. In its 2022 annual report, its revenue was $118,000.

The group is now looking to buy a building. Jones hopes to find more space and serve more women.

"The dream is that Constructing Our Future replicates in additional houses throughout the state and that we become the place and the approach, philosophically (and) ideologically, of how to help formerly incarcerated women restart their lives," Jones said. "We want to be the resource.”

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Joe Walls stands on the front porch of the Constructing Our Future house on the north side of Indianapolis.

More pictures: Rebuilding lives at the Constructing Our Future house

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.