Reconnecting with families among issues facing ex-felons

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

 For 15 years while he was incarcerated, Eugene Mack refused to have his three children visit him in prison. He’s been out for three months now and finds himself in a struggle to re-establish a relationship with his children.

The smile on his face belies the agony that he said he sometimes feels when he thinks about how wrong he was for not wanting his children to see him doing time for robbery.

He yearns to be a father again.

“I can’t assume anything,” Mack said. “I can’t step in as father any more. I can be a guiding force, but I can’t be an authority.

“They have seemed to move past the hurt because it hurt when you’re not there.”

Mack was one of several ex-felons who attended a re-entry symposium put on by Ready 4 Work, a re-entry program supported by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. The daylong event last Thursday in the Workforce Development Building at TCC was intended to identify resources for ex-felons and former juveniles after being released from detention.

Almost every speaker admitted that finding jobs, housing and transportation are some of the challenges that most felons face when they are released. However, reconnecting with families adds to the complications of readjusting to society, said Fred Rouse.

Rouse has lived it. He is a former felon who is now a re-entry case manager at Living Stone International. The agency provides multiple services to assist with re-entry.

“I formed relationships with many men who are like me; re-entering over and over again, not understanding that I abandoned my kids at home,” Rouse said. “I was just doing me. The kids were at home wondering where is daddy.”

Rattling off some statistics to prove his point, Rouse said that over 2,500 children in Leon County have an incarcerated parent. A little more than half of the parents return to the community each year.

The resentment that an ex-felon might experience comes because, in some cases, they are returning to a family that struggled financially while they were away, Rouse said. He added that such problems lead to stress that sometimes results in recidivism.

Rouse went on to say that some of the social issues faced by ex-felons might be resolved if local agencies that provide re-entry assistance join forces.

“This is important,” he said. “The men and women need us to do this because recidivism is so high; people going in and out (of incarceration). Along the way somebody innocent is being hurt and that includes a child.”

Mark McMillan and his wife, Bernice, also agreed that more partnership between agencies could help. They are founders of Divine Revelations Ministries, Inc., which provide in-prison services such as mentoring and counseling.

At one point during the presentation at the symposium, Bernice illustrated a case in which a female inmate expressed fear about life after prison.

“Pastor Mark, when I get out I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said the inmate told them. “My family connections are broken. I have nothing (and) I don’t have money. She did not have a lot of education or a support system at all.”

The McMillan’s said they use their own money to pay  the cost of a hotel for several months and helped her find resources for support.

The scenario isn’t much different for juveniles. According to Paul Hatcher, assistant secretary for Probation and Community Intervention with the Department of Juvenile Justice, reformation while in detention is only part of the challenge.

“You can train a young person all you can, given them all these skills and everybody feels good,” he said. “Everybody sings kumbaya; is all great but we all know some of these kids are returning to pure hell.”

On the upside, Hatcher said arrests among juveniles are down. However, he wasn’t quite sure why.

“Obviously, every kid is different, every assessment if different, but society has changed so there are a lot of issues.”

While juveniles aren’t subject to extremely long detention, the experience often is traumatic for a teenager, said Keith Parker, a Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at FAMU.

“We need to focus more attention on what’s happening to these young people as early as third, fourth, fifth grades,” said Parker, one of the symposium’s organizers. “As I travel throughout the country listening to people talk about restorative justice or criminal justice, trauma has become a very serious concern.

“There is some anger on the part of the young person and then when they return home; home might not be the most inviting situation for them because parents sometimes feel guilty and sometime they feel it’s the total bad behavior of the kids that resulted in their detainment. We have to find ways in dealing with the youngster and parents.”

Ex-felons’ civil rights also was addressed during the symposium. The issue was discussed during most of a 30-minute presentation by attorney Mark R. Schlakman, senior program director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at FSU.

The issue of civil rights could have far reaching affect on the 1.5 million people who had their right to vote restored last Novembers by a 60 percent margin of voters in Florida. Schlakman questioned why the state legislature is second-guessing language in the law.

He insisted that the passage of Amendment 4 is essential to an ex-felons return to society, although he questioned some of the stipulations.

“Amendment 4 was a very significant step forward and now we will see where it goes from here,” he said, “but connection to re-entry directly or indirectly is a very real one.”