As Bradenton Bridge faces closure, women hear from state Rep. Darryl Rouson

MANATEE -- Jessica Ritter has only six months left at Bradenton Bridge before she re-enters the community. The 29-year-old is at the transition and work release facility after being sentenced to three years in prison for shoplifting at Wal-Mart.

Her mother, Elizabeth, says the facility has really helped her daughter, who has been there for more than a year.

So she fears what will happen with Bradenton Bridge facing possible closure this summer. The facility provides women, including her daughter, who have spent years in prison with counseling, classes and employment opportunities.

"It really does help them," Elizabeth Ritter said Friday from her home in North Carolina. "They don't deserve to be put back in prison."

On Friday, Jessica Ritter and the other women at Bradenton Bridge heard from state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St.

Petersburg, who shared his personal story as a recovering addict and the eight treatments he went through over nine years.

"I had my re-entry," Rouson told the women, who laughed and shed tears at points throughout his story. "My re-entry was running for president of NAACP. My re-entry was running for state representative, and I stopped by here today because I need you. I need you. I need you committed like you've never been committed before."

Bradenton Bridge may be closed on July 24, when the state's contract with Bridges of America, the facility's private not-for-profit operator, expires. This is the second time in the past few years the facility, 2104 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton, has faced closure.

"You are in a good place," Rouson said. "Every community in this state needs a Bridges of America re-entry program. Every community. If we don't stand up now, it might be too late."

The 118 women in Bradenton Bridge are anxious about the possible closure, said Karen Santos, the assistant clinical director at Bradenton Bridge.

"They don't want to lose the place they live," she said.

Before Rouson spoke Friday, Santos read from a poem called "The Bridges" to the women.

Here you will find family and no longer be alone

It's not just a place to live, it's a temporary home

It's a place to find the strength to be able to say no.

With Bridges of America's contract set to expire in July, the state has no vendor set up to go into the Bradenton facility, according to Lori Constantino-Brown, president and CEO of Bridges of America. But state Department of Corrections officials say there is no intention to stop using the Bradenton facility for work release. Bridges of America wants to remain as the operator of the Bradenton facility.

"I am appalled right now that DOC would even be considering closing 300 of only 700 such based beds in the state of Florida," Rouson said. A Broward County facility is also facing closure. "If you don't get it on the inside, you got to get it here. I need you to make it. I need you to be successful at what we've learned here. Somebody is waiting on you. I need you to make it."

Treatment works, Rouson said.

"You have a responsibility to yourself and to those who are going sit in these seats behind you," he said. "When they succeed, we succeed. It is not only a matter of health. It is a matter of public safety and it is building lives. Bridges of America and these transition re-entry facilities is building lives."

Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino told the women that they've "been through this path together before and we are going to do it again."

"The minute I came in here I got it, and I've been committed to helping you each and every day," she said. "It's so important that we reach state legislators, and the Department of Corrections to show them what they really created here. We are going to work to keep this open. ... I've got your backs. You are the champions. You are my inspiration and you keep me going."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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