Changing societal stigmas of ex-offenders

By Laura Mulrooney, Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG — “Stay positive and keep it moving,” said Niki Johnson, president and founder of the grassroots initiative called Project Felons. The goal of her organization is to change the stereotype of how society views ex-offenders (returned citizens).

Johnson, a recent St. Petersburg College graduate and ex-offender, works hard to bring resources needed to successfully reintegrate returned citizens to the community.

“There is help if you really want to get back on your feet,” said Johnson. “It’s a process, the transition can be smooth, it won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but it can be smooth.”

Project Felons began in March of 2013; it is an internet based organization, which Johnson runs out of her home. Facebook is her primary link to the community, which currently has 692 supporters.

Johnson regularly posts a variety of information including available jobs, local community events, motivational stories, quotes and resources available throughout Pinellas County and surrounding areas.

Currently, Project Felons is open to everyone, but with expected growth and increased financial support Johnson would like to shift the focus to assist women ex-offenders.

During the start of her reintegration, Johnson noticed that the resources provided to her were gender specific and targeted males.

She believes that females are highly underrepresented in programs that focus on the successful reentry of returned citizens and that women have different needs and require different types of support.

LaShanna Tyson

LaShanna Tyson

“They need it so very bad. Women often times have children to provide for. If they can’t get jobs or housing as soon as they return home, how can they support a family,” said LaShanna Tyson, a returned citizen and recent graduate from Seminole State College.

“Since 2010, the female jail population has been the fastest growing correctional population, increasing by an average annual rate of 3.4 percent,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

But for Johnson and Tyson, who formed a sister-like friendship during their simultaneous fight to reintegrate, no one was going to tell these women that they wouldn’t succeed.

“I spent 13 years, I fought back. I was lucky that my children weren’t little when I came back [because] I couldn’t get a job; I couldn’t rent a place” said Tyson, a local advocate for “Ban the Box,” an international campaign that encourages employers to remove the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record on job applications.

“I would advise everyone to take advantage of all the resources that are available,” said Tyson. “If you can’t get a regular job, think about starting your own business, it costs $70 to start a business. Take what you love and turn it into the job you want. Do not give in; do not do anything to get yourself sent back.”

According to BJS, the longer released prisoners go without being arrested, the less likely they will be arrested at all. “For example, 43 percent of released prisoners were arrested within one year of release, compared to 13 percent…who were arrested in the fifth year after release.”

“Just because you’ve made a mistake doesn’t mean you can’t change,” said Johnson.

For more details, Project Felons can be found on Facebook at ProjectFelonsHelpingPinellas.

For employers and organizations who are willing and able to hire and provide resources to former offenders, they can sign up at jfbpromiseinc.org/project-felons.html.

Laura Mulrooney is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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