How many of you realize that, over the past 19 years, almost 400 men serving life and other long-term sentences have been released from Florida prisons and are now living in our local communities?
The fact you haven’t noticed is a testament to the success of the Dr. Regina B. Shearn Corrections Transition Program at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami. For almost two decades these men, who all served between 25 years and 50 years, have transitioned from institutionalized prison life back into the free world, and not one has returned to prison for committing another violent crime.
This corrections transition program is unique. Through workshops and classes, students from Florida International University, guest speakers, volunteers, parolees and other convicts in the program, these men are receiving preparation for their entry back into society.
In Florida, the sentencing guidelines have changed over the years and, until 1995, a life sentence for first-degree murder meant mandatory incarceration with the opportunity to be considered for parole after a mandatory sentence was served.
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Fast forward to 2015: Many of these men have served their mandatory sentences. In fact, most of the men in the program have served between 27 years and 50 years. One, who was sentenced to life at 17, was recently paroled after 41 years in prison. He now is leading a productive life in Tampa, delivering medical supplies to doctors and hospitals.
More important, he is volunteering to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth, which many of our men do after being paroled.
Historically, society has done a pretty good job of arresting criminals, convicting them and incarcerating them. However, the corrections system has not done a good job of transitioning long-term offenders from institutionalized prison life back to society.
Why should anyone care about the successful transition of men sentenced to life in prison? The answer is multi-faceted, but, first and foremost, helping these men this way keeps our streets safe. If we can help them, they will not need to turn to illegal means to survive.
Consider: Almost 400 men have been paroled through this program since 1997, and of all the men paroled, there have been only two nonviolent criminal violations.
What makes this corrections transition program so successful? First, we are all volunteers, and we do what we do because we care.
We provide several varied workshops, presentations and classes for the men — each facilitated by many sources, including the convicts themselves. The Voices of Time Gavel Club was added to this program eight years ago to improve the men’s lives by teaching them how to speak well, listen and think so they can communicate more effectively and give back to society when they are released.
Every one of our men has dramatically improved their speaking and communication skills, while also gaining tremendous confidence and self-esteem. While many people may not recognize the importance of self-esteem, research papers over decades have proven how critical it is in being able to live a “normal life.” Lack of self-esteem drives people into gangs and risky behavior. It ultimately can lead to detrimental situations for the individual and for society.
We also stress the importance of leadership, and our men are taught, and expected, to lead each meeting. It’s remarkable how many of these life-sentenced men, who get paroled, later write or call to say how much the public-speaking component of the corrections-transition program made a difference in their lives.
It is time for us, as a society, to look closely at programs such as this one, which have outstanding track records of success. Perhaps it is time to consider creating comprehensive national extensions of this effective corrections transition program.
Chris Wolfe is a board member of Corrections Transition, Inc. and founder of the Voices of Time Gavel Club.