Breaking the Barriers: Finding a Solution

April 24, 2018

On this episode of Locked Out, we investigate ways to help Florida felons re-enter society.

After leaving prison, Jhody Polk had one thing on her mind: going back. Her charges followed her everywhere. Getting used to life outside the gates felt nearly impossible.

When felons leave prison, their records can make it hard to find housing, secure a job and regain a voice in society. Felons, like Jhody, often need help overcoming the barriers to re-entry. We show the faces and stories behind the problems, but we needed to uncover ways to solve them.

We found three solutions during our investigation that could make life after prison easier.

Making a Change

“They had gone to prison; they had gone to jail,” Meshon Rawls, a University of Florida law professor said. “They had done everything that they could do, and they still were being penalized.”

Our team found three solutions to improve felons’ transition back to life outside the gates.

Education

Proper education can help guide felons in the right direction after prison.

Jhody educated herself while behind bars to be prepared for her release.

“While I was incarcerated, I became a law clerk which was a blessing,” she said.

At that time, she also enrolled in two faith-based re-entry programs. After prison, she continued to look for support and joined the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

“Being a part of those two organizations helps me take off the mask of shame of incarceration,” Jhody said. “It also empowered me to know that because I’m free I have the ability to free some other women as well.”

Teaching and educating felons behind bars can help them become successful when those bars disappear. Inmates are removed from the labor market and do not have much access to educational programs and college counseling, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Some new efforts have been made to help prisoners receive education behind bars. In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that would bring more educational opportunities to prisoners. Local school districts and colleges will partner with the Florida Department of Corrections to provide vocational training and post-secondary education to inmates with less than two years of their sentence remaining.

Education in and out of prison can help keep felons from going back. Inmates who participate in education programs are 43 percent less likely to return, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Community Support

Even though Jhody had her family when she was released, she also needed the community on her side.

She now gives back to her community by working at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding in Gainesville. This center aims to create a community of its own by helping people heal from conflict and violence.

“To have a community that supports me and tells me all the time how proud they are of me because of what I did and can still now be who I am has to be the best,” Jhody said.

If we don’t do a re-entry right, they’re going to go right back in.

According to the FDOC, 86 percent of Florida inmates will one day be released back into their communities.

“They want to contribute to and participate in life in the community,” Meshon said.

Support from friends, family and neighbors can ease their transitions.

“If we don’t do a re-entry right, they’re going to go right back in,” said Heart Phoenix, founder of the Center for Peacebuilding.

The Ballot Box

Convicted Florida felons automatically lose their right to vote, often leaving them to feel voiceless.

“If we are not able to participate in that, then they’re not getting a true vote of the population,” said Ronald Mills, a felon just a few months away from being able to apply for his voting rights back.

If we are not able to participate in that, then they’re not getting a true vote of the population.

On the November ballot, Florida voters will have the opportunity to change the way felons earn back their right to vote, said Dr. Pippa Holloway, historian and author ofFelon Disenfranchisement and the History of American Citizenship.

If Amendment 4 passes, most non-violent Florida felons will have their rights restored automatically upon completion of their sentence.

“Basically when you’re done with jail or prison, when you’re done with probation and you’re done with parole, you’ll get a letter in the mail that says, ‘Congratulations, you can vote now,’” Pippa said. “Anybody who has completed the terms of their sentence can vote.”

The only exception are people with murder or sexual offense charges, she said. They will never regain their right to vote. Restoring felons’ right to vote can help knock down the barriers they face after prison.

“Once the civil rights are restored to a person, it is much easier to fight insurance companies for employability, for housing and making case-by-case decisions,” said Carrie Webb, a felon and founder of the Free Her Project.

It can also keep felons from going back behind bars. According to the Florida Commision on Offender Review, less than one percent of felons in the state who get their right to vote back return to prison.

“Once you restore those rights, it will give them the idea that they are part of the community again,” Ronald said.

A New Outlook

“We just have to change our view of how we see people who make mistakes,” Meshon said. 

Altering our outlook and erasing the stigma associated with the label “felon” could make it easier for formerly incarcerated individuals to re-assimilate. Not everyone understands the stories and situations behind a felony conviction, said Ronald.

“There are people that have just walked a straight line and have stayed away from trouble,” Ronald said. “They need to start looking at things in a different light.”

Even if you haven’t been to prison, he said these issues can affect everyone in a community.

We just have to change our view of how we see people who make mistakes

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