Reentry programs in Alachua County aim to help felons transition back into society. 

Editorial photo by Sean Doolan.

Tonya Brown had already been lucky once. Back in 2007, after being arrested for drug-trafficking, her sentence was shortened from 25 years to five. That day, Brown felt like the Lord was in the courtroom with her.

She knew in five years she would be able to see her son and brother, but she also felt uneasy about her release. She] knew her family and friends had not left behind their lifestyle of substance abuse, and she feared that reentry into society would send her back on the road to prison. She didn’t know if she’d get lucky again.

In 2012, Brown gathered with other inmates in the prison’s chapel for a guest speaker. A blonde woman stood at the front of the room, describing in a twangy Southern drawl the kind of community Brown thought could make her recovery possible and recidivism avoidable. The woman was Jennifer Beagle, director of House of Hope, a faith-based transition center for those who have been recently released from prison. Beagle described the program’s focus on faith and community, mentioning how the women support each other like family. Brown immediately felt like the program would be a safe space for her to grow. Alachua County is home to several of these kinds of programs, each of which aim to help the previously incarcerated transition back into society. House of Hope, which Brown — now a staff member — graduated from in 2013, is the the only transition house available for women in the county.

When an inmate is released, they get civilian clothing, a state ID card, a social security card, and $50 or their commissary balance. If they don’t have a family to go home to, they’re given a bus ticket and driven to a stop by an officer.

For newly released inmates, the minutia of adjusting back to regular life can be difficult. They need to find a job and, if their previous home wasn’t supportive, a place to live. The systemic problems that brought them to prison are waiting for them when they get out.

“Most of these women have families and children, and they need to support their children,” Brown said. “But if the opportunities are not there for them to do so, that leads back into a life of crime and going back to where they started from.”

In 2001, the Pentecostals of Gainesville opened The Wells House to help men transition back into society. To stay at the Wells House the men must maintain a full-time day job, help pay rent, and attend evening faith-based studies. In exchange, the house puts clothes on their back and provides them with food and shelter.

The director, John Stockwell, estimates 130 to 135 men have passed through the house, which accommodates only five men at a time.

“Most of these folks really don’t have a clue what these guys go through,” he said.

Stockwell is also a prison minister. Often, his first interaction with the men who go on to participate in his program is during their sentence. He chooses which ones are able to enter the house based on their behavior in prison.

“A lot of the time these guys are just guys who have made mistakes, numerous mistakes, and they just need a little help, a little encouragement, a little direction,” Stockwell said.  

“It’s very important to have support,” Edwards said, “because without support you can’t stand.” 

But after potentially years in prison, it can be hard for convicted felons to go through transition programs. And even with transition programs, the National Reentry Resource Center reports that less than half of released prisoners secure a job upon their return to the community. Once felony convictions are disclosed, applications rarely make it further. A study at Arizona State University found that among applications from felons with the same credentials, black and Hispanic men were less likely to receive a call back than white men.

Frank Edwards, a convicted felon who is currently homeless, said these programs can feel like prisons in themselves, with curfews and restrictions.

Edwards has been homeless since April, when he was released from prison on what he says is a wrongful arrest. After eight months in jail, he left the court system in the mid-afternoon.

“With the help of God backing me, I fought,” Edwards said. “And won.”

Edwards was arrested twice before in the 1980s, both times for drug-related charges when he was dealing in his New Jersey hometown. He served 18 months in 1987 for dealing cocaine, but was hopeful upon release. He was able to start his own business, Edwards Painting and Maintenance Service, which along with his savings and the support of his wife, Kasey, kept him afloat for many years.

His problems escalated with the death of his mother in 2003.

“You didn’t have that rock to fall on to hold you up,” Edwards said. “ I was placed in a situation where I had to survive the best way I could.”

In 2005 Edwards was taken in for driving on a suspended license. It took him 30 days to sort out the charge, and Edwards lost his job.

From there, he began a downward spiral back onto the streets and into the system.

This time around, no employer has been willing to take a second chance. Edwards first applied within his field of training but with no luck. He eventually applied for minimum wage jobs like McDonald’s and Publix. He has yet to hear back.

Until he can find employment, Edwards is forced to get by on any money he can panhandle or make through odd jobs.

“It’s very important to have support,” Edwards said. “Because without support you can’t stand.”

At his latest release, Edwards did find some support from Father Jeremy Hole, a clergyman at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church who helped him with rent.
“[Father Hole] just showed actual love,” Edwards said. “That’s the most important thing.”

Whether it’s from family, friends or the Lord, Edwards points to support as an important factor in a felon’s transition. With no desire to stay at St. Francis, no family left in the area, and no employer willing to give him another shot, Edwards continues to sleep on the streets.

“The criminal justice system is a big business now,” he said. “So they don’t want you to be successful at anything that you do that’s right. They want you to continue to live a life of crime.”

Brown admits that leaving the system can be difficult. People who you thought were friends may turn out to be toxic. Even your family can be your downfall. It’s difficult to get a job, to find somewhere to sleep and, mostly, to keep your head up. But Brown relies on Jeremiah 29:11 and believes in the Lord’s plan for her.

“I know that he has good for me,” Brown said. “No matter what the storm looks like, no matter if I cannot see a light at the end of that tunnel, I stand on that word.” •