JACKSONVILLE – When an inmate gets released from a Florida prison, very little is given to them by the correctional facility that housed them during their incarceration.
“Normally without any resources, an inmate gets a bus ticket and $50 and a change of clothes,” said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
It’s not much, and it doesn’t give inmates an awful lot of options if they don’t have family or friends willing to take them in and assist them.
“They have a release plan before they’re released, which they work on with their release officer while they’re still in prison,” she said. “Sometimes they have worked out where they’re going, and sometimes not. So a lot of them just go out of prison and have no plan on all. We do as much as we can with the ones on supervised probation, but some have no probation.”
If those offenders don’t have family members to reach out to, and lost the job and apartment they had up until they got sent to prison, these inmates may not know, or care, where they end up.
“They have to state where they want to go, and if they have nowhere to go to and no idea, we return them to the county of the conviction,” Rackleff said. “We try to work with them. They have classes for 100 hours before they get released. Some inmates participate very enthusiastically — and some do not.”
In an effort to help inmates being released from prison, DOC has launched a new test initiative in Duvall County, known as a Re-Entry Portal. The idea is to create one place where a released inmate can go to tap into any community resources that are available to help them — everything from a place to live, to job assistance programs, to mental health counseling.
“It is a fairly new initiative,” Rackleff said. “In Jacksonville, we have a pairing with the Baker CI.”
Located in Sanderson in North Florida, Baker Correctional Institution was established in 1978 for minimum custody youthful offenders, but was converted in 1981 to house adult male inmates. In November 2009, the mission was changed to prepare inmates for work release and to provide them with assistance for their successful re-entry into society.
“Inmates that are going to be released go to Baker CI and are then taken to Duvall County to a kind of a portal, which is sponsored by DOC and local law enforcement,” she said. “They go through this portal and find out about everything in one place. It is an old barracks building that the county was able to provide for us.”
If this Re-Entry Portal proves to be successful, she said, DOC hopes to expand it to other regions of the state.
“We haven’t been able to establish them everywhere, but we’re working on that,” she said. “We’re working on partnerships with other law enforcement entities on this.”
If the two agencies can set up more Re-Entry Portals, that could prove to be a useful tool, both for the inmates and for the communities they chose to live in. Every year, Florida releases 35,000 inmates from prison, and there are currently about 150,000 offenders on community supervision. About 88 percent of those in Florida’s prison are eventually released. Re-Entry programs help inmates make the transition from being in a cell for years to being back on the outside, expected to become productive citizens.
But after years of being incarcerated, Rackleff said, they leave prison with virtually nothing except the clothes on their backs, and in many instances have lost their job, apartment, ability to drive a car, and maybe the support of the family.
“A lot of them don’t have driver’s licenses,” she said. “The portals will be a place where they can get an I.D.”
Some local counties have been doing their own Re-Entry programs to assist offenders.
Earlier this year, the Lake County Probation Division and the Florida Department of Corrections and Probation and Parole Offices partnered on a Re-Entry Fair at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares. It brought together more than thirty agencies representing a wide variety of programs and services, including assistance getting health care benefits, driver’s licenses, job development and education, housing, and restoration of their civil rights if they’ve been convicted of a felony.
Re-Entry programs recognize that offenders face a complex number of challenges as they try to straighten out their lives, and that introducing them to social service providers can be beneficial in the long run.
On Oct. 18, Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker launched another program called the Re-entry Resource Directory. By logging on to www.dc.state.fl.us/resourcedirectory, inmates can use the website to produce lists of community resources by zip code, city, county or judicial circuit.
“Our goal is to keep Floridians safe by providing programs and resources that ultimately reduce recidivism and victimization,” Tucker said. “When ex-offenders have access to resources and can get the help they need to become productive members of the community, they’re less likely to return to prison.”
Former inmates and offenders on supervision can use the site as an online one-stop-shop to help them connect with more than 2,000 community resources and programs that range from medical to career counseling, to housing and substance abuse treatment.
Inmates about to be released will be notified by their classification officers that this resource is available, and probation officers will tell offenders on their caseloads about it.
Ex-inmates and offenders who don’t have computers or Internet connections can access the resource list by phone, simply by calling 850-717-3173. The database is continually being updated.
To learn more, email DC.ResourceDirectory@mail.dc.state.fl.us or fax questions to 850-922-2238.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.