TALLAHASSEE – William Carr knows the statistics. Of the thousands of inmates released from Florida’s prisons every year, some of them are likely to get their lives back on track, and some simply won’t.
“If you study this issue at all, you know there will be certain people and you can put them in every program you have, and regardless of the efforts you make, they’re going to come back to prison,” said Carr, the assistant secretary of Re-Entry for the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee. “Then there are people who made a horrible mistake, and they’re not coming back, because being in prison has been horrible enough for them.”
The first group won’t be assisted much by community service programs aimed at helping felons find jobs, housing, health care, or substance abuse treatment, he said. The latter group probably doesn’t need that help.
“It’s that group in the middle,” he said, “that we are really focusing on. That’s the philosophy under which we operate. We have over 101,000 inmates in our system. Of that 101,000, 54,000 will be released in the next three years. We know 75 percent of those people don’t have a higher school diploma or GED. Over two thirds of those people have substance abuse problems. There are a myriad of issues we are trying to address.”
DOC’s Re-Entry program is designed to help introduce inmates to the services available to them in the communities they’re returning to after they get out of prison. 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, DOC launched a 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. 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.
“Certainly there are financial restraints that all of us face,” Carr said. “Certainly it’s a tough economy for inmates who are being released. It’s our responsibility to utilize the resources we have the best we can, to equip the men and women being released from prison to help them find gainful employment.”
That also means establishing partnerships with local community service agencies, he said.
“We release nearly 3,000 inmates every single month,” he said. “For all of us to be successful, it’s important that all of us work together.”
How challenging can it be, at a time when Florida’s unemployment rate is still in double-digits, to find jobs for convicted felons who have to acknowledge that fact on their job application forms? It’s not easy, Carr said, but it’s not impossible, either.
“Over the past two or three years, one of the initiatives we’ve taken is we’ve developed a series of portals of Re-entry,” he said. “They’re one stop-shopping for specific geographic areas of the state. We will transport the inmates to these Re-Entry centers where there will be an introduction to a variety of community-based services, and that includes job counseling in general. “
Inmates also get training sessions at their prison before their release.
“Before every inmate is discharged, they go through a 100 hour transition program,” Carr said. “It’s general life skills and job skills. Some of it can be basics – how do you conduct a job interview, how do you fill out a job application, how do you dress when you go for a job interview.”
Inmates are also given an opportunity to get into a work release program while they’re still serving their sentence.
“One of the things this department does is we have over 3,000 work release beds in this state,” Carr said. “The department operates 19 work release facilities, and we have private providers that operate out of it. That work component is as good a program as you can have as far as attempting to reduce recidivism. Even though the economy has been tough, these facilities have done a wonderful job helping these people.”
There are also state and federal programs that offer tax breaks and bonding services to employers that hire convicted felons, he added.
“There are a variety of tax based incentives for employers,” Carr said, adding that another critical factor is whether the inmate has family and friends ready to assist them, and local probation offices that go the extra mile to help felons find employment.
“In my honest opinion, those play a role,” he said. “The real significant part is with people in these (probation and parole) facilities who accomplish this just from sheer effort and energy, helping men and women find a job, who hound the street every day for employers who are willing to hire them. That is a really big factor. Having that support system in place plays a monumental factor going forward. We work very diligently to bring that together.”
They also try to match inmates to educational program, whether it’s getting their high school GED or some vocational training.
“Those slots are limited,” he said. “It depends upon us to make sure we’re plugging the right people into the right position. But we cannot reach every single one of those people. We reach as many of those people as we can. But going forward, what will accomplish this is better coordination with the communities.”
Carr’s department is about to launch a new program, to allow inmates to take part in an apprenticeship while they’re still incarcerated.
“Another initiative we’re undertaking now is an apprenticeship program recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor,” Carr said. “It will be a certificate program for jobs that our inmates are already doing at various facilities. We’re launching it at three facilities, and some of these programs will take years for inmates to actually earn the certificate. But they can take that anywhere after they’re released. It doesn’t cost any additional dollars. We’re not bringing in new personnel to do it. But it literally is going to be launched any day, and we’re finalizing the last couple of standards as we speak.”
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