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Experts and returning citizens want to break down the barriers for life after jail

2Rhon Vassell.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
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Rhon Vassell is a Palm Beach County resident currently out on parole after severing several years in prison for gun and drug charges.

Rhon Vassell was released earlier this year on parole, after serving 5 years in prison.

He spent those years thinking about his mistakes. His greatest fear was returning back to his community worse off than when he came in — and the severely understaffed, violent prison didn't help.

As a Palm Beach County summit on life after incarceration approaches, the 40-year-old electrician said that trying to integrate back into society after prison is as much of a challenge as the sentence itself.

Vassell believes people who get immediate access to education and resources after getting out of prison have a better chance at making a fresh start.

He's from Palm Beach County. He has a lengthy criminal record and has just served time for felony gun and drug possession charges — but he says it’s not a path he thought he'd end up on.

"Well, I wanted to make it big one way or another. You know, if it's due to my voice, because I always wanted to be like the next Barry White or something, " Vassell said, while singing several tunes. "I've done music here and there. You know, it never took me anywhere. So I went to electrical work."

But he said he still had a desire to make fast cash. The drug game led to a narcotics squad raiding his home after authorities responded to a Crimestoppers' report. Life hit him fast, he said. His experience in jail was bruising.

"Evidently, life comes [and] it hits you differently," Vassell said. "Sometimes it hits with an uppercut. Sometimes it, you know, the main [punch] is straight blows. But this one, they hit me pretty bad."

Experts argue Florida prisons are often designed to punish, not rehabilitate inmates.

Vassell said after begging his case manager to help him find housing upon his release, he received a postcard and was eventually led to The Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach.

People who are returning to the community from incarceration face numerous, numerous barriers — from unemployment to low educational attainment, lack of stable housing, and, in Palm Beach specifically, lack of affordable housing
Dr Cassandra Atkin-Plunk

The non-profit's reentry program screens and helps former inmates transition back into society—assisting with job skill training, employment, and a subsidized place to live.

The Lord’s Place subsidizes Vassell’s home and he now works for his previous trades employer, whom he got in touch with shortly after being released. His new car takes him to work and back.

According to the Lord’s Place, 82% of their reentry clients in the county avoid returning back to jail or prison one year following their release.

Dr. Cassandra Atkin-Plunk is the Associate Professor and the Associate Director in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University.

She works closely with The Lord’s Place, as well as Palm Beach County’s public safety department and the criminal justice commission.

One of her specialties? Evaluating the effectiveness of reentry programs.

"People who are returning to the community from incarceration face numerous, numerous barriers — from unemployment to low educational attainment, lack of stable housing, and, in Palm Beach specifically, lack of affordable housing," Atkin-Plunk said.

 The Palm Beach County (PBC) Reentry Task Force's summit at The Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach, 2018
The Palm Beach County (PBC) Reentry Task Force's summit at The Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach, 2018

At the Reentry Summit in early October, hosted by the Palm Beach County Reentry Task Force, community leaders and reentry experts from across the country will gather in Palm Beach County to share a variety of solutions and best practices and share insights on how to break down the barriers for life after incarceration.

Substance abuse. Mental health issues. Financial and transportation challenges. Atkin-Plunk says if these aren’t addressed it can result in former inmates engaging in criminal activity again and increase recidivism.

She cited a U.S Bureau of Justice study that shows from 2005-2014, more than two thirds of people were rearrested within three years of release from prison.

For many, it happens during the first year of release.

Atkin-Plunk said "our system seems to be about warehousing individuals." 

"Now, there's definitely been a shift into more of a rehabilitative response and desire to help people who are incarcerated," she said. "But, you know, people come in with a vast variety of needs and issues and risk levels." 

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.