MANATEE -- Where will I live?
Can I get food stamps?
How can I get my driver’s license back?
How can I get my children back?
These hard questions and many more like them came up when a group of female state prisoners housed at Bradenton Bridge Transitional Center, a tidy campus of dorms and classrooms owned by the Florida Department of Corrections at 2104 63rd Ave. E., got to attend an unusual Re-Entry Transition Fair.
The event, held under a large white tent Tuesday morning, linked the facility’s 120 inmates with representatives from about 25 local agencies committed to helping them transition back into their communities after they complete their sentences.
About five years ago, a private company called Bridges of America signed a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections to create a 120-woman transitional center at the 63rd Avenue East site, which longtime Bradenton residents probably remember was a male work release facility in the 1970s and a juvenile facility after that.
The facility was shut down by the Florida Department of Corrections for a time due to public concerns after violent crimes were committed by two escaped male inmates, said Angela Ashley, the current facility director.
“It was vacant for three years before Bridges of America came in in 2006,” Ashley said.
Under Bridges of America, the facility is working to overcome some of its negative past in Manatee with not only a successful work release program but Tuesday’s fair, designed to prepare inmates for the tough road ahead of them, Ashley added.
To those who might wonder why should Manatee County agencies help felons, Sharon Burke, the chaplain for the center, said it’s an investment.
“These people will be our neighbors one way or another,” Burke said. “I feel we are better for making them productive citizens if we can.”
The women inmates had plenty of questions for representatives with the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, Manatee Glens, Community Coalition on Homelessness, Manatee Community Action Agency, Salvation Army, Suncoast Workforce, Legal Aid of Manasota, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Habitat for Humanity, Redemption Church, the One-Stop Center, Manatee Technical Institute, Depression and Bi-Polar Group, Hope Family Services and more.
“One thing that stood out for me was that a lot of these women were put in jail for drug trafficking and they told me drug trafficking is a crime where they cannot easily get food stamps when they get out,” said Linda Gaines, of Manatee County Coalition on Homelessness. “It makes you realize how devastating the consequences of being in jail can be.”
The inmates were nervous about where they will live, how to get legal help to regain their children and how they can drive again, Gaines said.
“Many have bad credit so they need help getting housing,” said Christina Van Schultz, a therapist at Manatee Glens. “They need someone’s help to talk to housing managers on their behalf.”
Many would like to put their own sweat equity into a Habitat for Humanity home, Ashley said.
“We went over all the housing programs we have in the county,” Ashley added.
“They want to be able to get their driver’s licenses back and to vote,” Gaines added. “It’s kind of hard. If you can’t get a driver’s license or food stamps, what are you supposed to do?”
In a speech Burke gave to kick off the fair, she quoted a letter from Lori Costantino-Brown, whose father, Frank Costantino, founded Bridges of America 30 years ago in Orlando. Frank Costantino was a state prisoner who realized inmates needed help to stay out of jail.
“This year, as is the case in most years, approximately 20,000 inmates will be released from Florida’s prisons with only $100 and a bus ticket,” Burke said, quoting Costantino-Brown. “A hundred dollars and a bus ticket and nothing more, except for the education they got when they were inside.”
For many of these female inmates, their friends and families can’t offer them a solid foundation for going forward with productive lives and they will need the new network of friends and family these resource groups can provide, Burke said.
“Several of the inmates said they do not want to go back to their home areas because they want to start a fresh life here,” Ashley said. “It was extremely important to them to see we are providing a safety net and hooking them up with community partnerships. It gave them a confident and hopeful attitude about returning to the community and being good citizens.”
“I can remember people saying to me, ‘Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps like your mother did,’ ” Burke said. “That may be true, but many of those ‘bootstraps’ are no longer available today. These resource groups you see under this tent are really the new families of these women.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.