June 07, 2021
Contact: FDC Communications
ICYMI: Florida prisons try mentor program to help those on short sentences succeed after release
“We have a new beginning to break the cycle of yesterday,” Rogelio Perez told a group of men inside the Central Florida Reception Center’s chapel, most, like him, wearing light-blue scrubs, the standard of attire for anyone incarcerated at a Florida state prison.
About two hours northwest from that Orlando-area prison, Rebecca Falcon spoke to a different room of people in light-blue prison uniforms at the Florida Women’s Reception Center, calling the new effort “a hub of programs and rebuilding.”
Over the last few months, Perez and Falcon worked as part of a small group of incarcerated men and women who volunteered to help develop a new mentorship program for the prison system, aimed at better supporting people who are serving short, first-time prison sentences.
Under direction from Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, the group established the Short Sentence Correctional Units, entire dorms focused on supporting people with short-term stays by addressing underlying trauma, improving education and job skills, preparing reentry plans and learning from peers’ mistakes and successes, all through classes and day-to-day mentorship provided primarily by older peers serving long sentences, like Perez and Falcon.
The volunteer mentors live alongside the group of mostly younger men and women, a setup that officials hope will help keep negative influences away from a more vulnerable population and help them avoid returning to crime when they re-enter society.
“We are … what prison was designed to be,” Perez said, explaining that the new dorm and mentorship program focuses on education, rehabilitation, positive relationships and preparation for release.
After its development last fall, the program kicked off at five different prisons across the state in January. It has now established 21 different dorms, involving almost 150 mentors and almost 1,500 mentees, according to FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady. She said about 250 people who were in the program have since been released, but said it’s too early to track their success in the community.
Eduardo Filomeno, who is serving as one of the Short Sentence Correctional Unit mentors at the CFRC, said the goal is to “create a new normal for the Department of Corrections.” He pointed to the current recidivism rate for those leaving prison, which in Florida is about 60%, and said he hopes this program can help change someone’s path.
“We don’t [want you to] end up coming out worse than when you got in,” said Filomeno, 42, who’s served almost 20 years on a 30-year sentence. “I hope you don’t have to learn everything I’ve had to learn in 20 years. You can have it from me for free in 20 minutes.”
Cassandra Pasquale, 31, was sent to the FWRC in January on a two-year sentence. With credit for time served in the county jail, she should be released by the end of the year. She said she always struggled having grown up without her parents, but being in the new mentorship program and short-sentence dorm gave her a new family: counselors, mentors, sponsors and friends.
She said she has already learned a lot, both about herself and life skills, through the program, but is still working to get her GED. She said she hopes to get into a halfway house upon release, knowing it will be a difficult transition and she wants to “keep the change going.”
“I can be a product of my environment, but I can change my environment,” Pasquale said, repeating one of the core concepts of the program.
The new Short Sentence Correctional Units’ focus on self-improvement comes as the agency is facing criticism for another new program, which separates people deemed threats from the rest of the population. Advocates worry that effort will result in people being labeled troublemakers over minor infractions, with little opportunity for redemption.
But the new short sentence program has some longtime incarcerated mentors hopeful for a real shift in the prison system, from punishment to actual rehabilitation.
“This is a proactive thing, reactive got us in here,” Treadway said. “We want to equip and empower these guys. ... We want to give them that stepping stone.”
While mentors do all they can to help support and prepare people to return to society, they said they face obvious imitations: many haven’t been outside of prison in decades and they can only do so much from inside the prison walls, said Alexa Bennett, one of the mentors at FWRC serving a life sentence.
She said the mentors will often hear from women who have been released, but they can’t physically help a woman stay away from a pimp or abuser, which is why they need more partnerships with reentry, housing and job support organizations.
“We can do everything for them in here, but if there’s not someone on the outside… it’s all for nothing,” said Perez, 52, who’s serving a 25-year sentence. “What is needed is more outside help.”
Glady said FDC is working to set up outside mentorship through Lean on Me USA and Alpha USA, two organizations that work with returning citizens, but it’s still in progress.
Nicole Dyson, a volunteer at FWRC who has become part of the support network for its short sentence program, also called on more community involvement.
“There’s not enough support for people being released from prison,” said Dyson, who is formerly incarcerated and now runs The Jesus Infusion nonprofit. “They’re not scary people getting out. ...Most of them are abused women who have never been nurtured. Oftentimes, many of them have not been loved, properly, wholly, unconditionally, safely.”
She praised the new short-sentence dorms at FWRC, for which she volunteers with both the mentors and mentees, teaching communication and life skills, as well as offering emotional and spiritual support, having noticed a difference in the groups from her prior work at the prison.
“There’s this huge chasm when the girls would come to prison for the first time and they would get mixed in — if you want to learn how to be a criminal, go to prison,” Dyson said. “… But now, in this program, they’re keeping them separate.”
Lynell Reeves, who’s currently serving as a mentor for the program but is expected to complete her sentence in the next few years, said she hopes to continue to work in reentry upon her release by helping to create a network of support on the outside for women like her.
But many, like Falcon, are serving life sentences without any opportunities for release. That makes the process a little bittersweet, though she said knowing she can help others is still “satisfying and hopeful.”
Frank Reyes, 29, is about 16 years into his 40-year sentence for a crime he committed as a juvenile but said his new work as a mentor is worth the effort because he gets to see others succeed and change.
One of those men is Romero Castro, 28, who will be released from prison this summer. Castro said his time in prison has been completely different from the horror stories he heard from a brother who was incarcerated before him, with access to different classes and opportunities to reflect on his life, learn and improve his outlook.
As Florida's largest state agency, and the third largest state prison system in the country, FDC employs 24,000 members, incarcerates 80,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders in the community.