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Muhammed and expert panel discuss recidivism in Florida

David Krakow

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From left: Panelists Patrick Mohoney, John Muhammad, Anthony Williams, Danielle Thomas and Judith Scully, Tuesday, Dec. 12 at the Center for Health Equity. Photo: David Krakow.

Anthony Williams’ request to the audience was an unusual one.

In this day and age, audiences are accustomed to being asked by moderators and other event hosts to turn off or silence cell phones. Williams, an Affordable Care Act navigator for the Pinellas County Urban League, had a different request Tuesday (Dec. 12) at the Center for Health Equity.

The topic for discussion was re-entry for criminals. “I want you to pull out your phones and Google Anthony Girard Williams,” Williams asked of the 100 or so attendees.

The first search result: A 2009 court case, USA vs. Anthony Girard Williams, “a federal prisoner convicted of crack cocaine offenses.” There was a slide behind the stage from where Williams spoke, showing other prior court filings in Florida and southern California.

The point Williams wanted to make was that, even now, as a respected member of the community, he still has to deal with the detritus of his past, the questions and challenges he still faces in his professional career.

The event was hosted by St. Petersburg City Councilman John Muhammad, who hinted at a crossroads moment that might have led to similar search results for him. “I was one decision away from being incarcerated for a very long time,” the council member told the crowd. He cited his wife, and faith, as factors that helped steer him in the right direction.

Following Muhammad’s opening remarks, a panel of five scholars and civic representatives discussed the challenges and steps necessary to ensure that those who have served their time can re-enter society with the tools and support they need to assimilate – responsibilities equally shared by the ex-criminals and society.

The other panelists were Patrick Mohoney, Director of the Office of Programs & Re-Entry for the Florida Department of Corrections; Danielle Thomas, a Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida; and Judith Scully, a Law Professor at Stetson University. The moderator was Rochelle Alleyne of ABC Action News.

Following the panel was a re-entry simulation where the guests were handed packets of information to spotlight the day-to-day challenges faced post-incarceration. There were four sessions, each meant to represent one week after release from prison because, it was explained, the first month can be make-or-break for the formerly incarcerated. The packets were filled with a profile and a life card, representing the fictional person’s biography post-prison and his or her assets.

Williams started the panel listing the skills that people need when they are released, from computer skills such as Microsoft Office to business education and access to mental health services. “These guys need to have these skills to function in society,” Williams urged. But most of the comments were focused on the responsibilities of everyone involved to soften the re-entry.

“If society is not welcoming, it will perpetuate the cycle of recidivism,” Thomas said. “We are therefore threatening our own safety if they (ex-criminals) have to house and feed themselves.” Florida’s recidivism rate is around 25%. The point was made frequently that those who fear having ex-criminals in their lives and neighborhoods have only themselves to blame if they don’t do their part to welcome ex-criminals back. “The stigmas have to change, and it starts with yourself,” she added.

Thomas also stressed that prison was the convicted person’s punishment, and that it is wrong to not give them a clean slate once they are released. “Open up your arms to this community,” she implored.

“We need more and more community involvement,” added Mohoney, “whether that is churches, other faith-based agencies, employers.”

Scully warned that the roadblocks are severe and entrenched. “It is not a monolithic society,” she said about ex-criminals. “The legal system is set up to keep you inside. Everywhere you turn when you get out of prison there is a barrier,” she added, citing food and housing. “What does it feel like when you come out of a cage?” She cited the need for legal reform and wraparound social services.

Thomas emphasized the need for education – such as GEDs, certificates and training. She noted that 94% of employers run background checks, a severe barrier for employment.

Muhammad talked about barriers to housing and the danger. “When you come out, you are probably living on someone’s couch,” he said. “And you are one argument from being homeless.” He also cited St. Petersburg’s rising rents as another problem.

Mohoney’s statistics laid bare the challenges: 60% of those incarcerated in Florida have substance treatment needs; ex-criminals are five times more likely than non-incarcerated citizens to be unemployed, and prisoners have on average 6th grade education levels. He said there are around 8,500 people incarcerated in the state’s corrections system and another 140,000 on supervision.

Muhammad also returned to the theme of punishment, during incarceration and after. “The line has been blurred between punishment and justice,” he lamented. “People are still being punished after they serve time.” Both Muhammad and Scully warned that political fixes require patience – if they can be counted on at all.

“People need to understand the levels and layers of government,” Muhammad clarified. He cited being asked to fix something that is ultimately a state issue. Scully added “if we are waiting on legislative change, we could be waiting a really long time.”

Are there success stories out there? Scully cited the Missouri model for juveniles where, instead of institutional incarceration, inmates are housed within the general population, allowed to go to school. They receive therapy as do the families they live with. The state, she said, stays in touch with the prisoners and the families even after they move out. She said recidivism, which approaches 80% in some states, is about 10% in Missouri.

Ultimately, Muhammad concluded, everyone has to do their part for re-entry to succeed. “You can’t legislate sympathy,” he said. “You can’t legislate empathy.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    December 13, 2023at7:49 pm

    Prison is for punishment, however, there needs to be a change to add Rehabilitation in addition to punishment. A person need to come out of prison ready for employment. Professional, painters, Brick Masons, electricians, Plumbers, chefs are some ideas. They go in knowing nothing and come out knowing less. Prisoners need to provide upkeep of the prison as a training tool.

  2. Avatar

    james gillespie

    December 13, 2023at7:46 pm

    IT IS NAIVE TO THINK YOU TOTALLY ESCAPE YOUR PAST OR THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED AND AFRIAD OF FORMER FELONS. THE TAMPA TIMES CARRIES MANY STORIES OF CRIME WHERE THE OFFENDER HAS AN IMPRESSIVE RAP SHEET. BUT I AGREE PEOPLE WHO HAVE DONE THERE TIME DESERVE ACCEPTENCE AND IN PRISON EDUCATION AMONG AN ARRAY OF SERVICES IS EXCELLENT PREPARATION FOR REJOINING SOCIETY. THERE IS NO PENAL SYSTEM THAT I AM AWARE OF THAT HAS A FULL REAB PROGRAM FOR REENTRY INTO SOCIETY. SHOW ME ANY COUNTRY WITH SUCH A SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM.

  3. Avatar

    Chris

    December 13, 2023at4:08 pm

    I’m not sure there is a clear answer. You can’t censure the media and you can’t hide your history. You can only hope that you can find a person/employer who is willing to hear your story. I worked for a person who was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor about 10 years ago. It made the front of the Times. Turns out the accuser was looking for a settlement for tax debt and the person I knew was never charged and wasn’t even in the area when the alleged event occurred. The Times NEVER gave an update and the person I knew had to move away. You think it’s bad for this guy who ACTUALLY DID THE CRIME?!?!?!

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