ST. PETERSBURG — Prisons are worlds unto themselves. Within the confines of any one correctional facility, inmates develop routines that may include educational classes, work, exercise and recreation. Prisoners may be allowed visitors and can receive mail or watch television.
Yet, letters and television are no replacement for active engagement with the world. Prison walls keep the rest of the world out but that world still exists, constantly morphing and advancing, unlike the stagnant days of inmates.
Being released into the forward flow of the world after having spent years in prison can thus be a jarring experience for ex-offenders. The struggles are even greater for those who have no family or friends on the outside to turn to.
Background checks complicate the search for housing, especially for the newly released and violent offenders. Job searches are largely done online, a concept that may be foreign to former inmates.
To help ex-offenders get back on their feet in what may seem to them a strange new world, transitional housing exists that offers residence to former inmates, such as the housing provided by One Unique Transition (OUT).
OUT is run by Executive Director Margaret DeBellotte-Torres and Volunteer Recovery Coach Anthony Ferrentino. The corporation, which has non-profit status in Florida, has one transitional house operating in Tampa and opened their second house in St. Petersburg in December 2012. DeBellotte-Torres said the St. Petersburg house has continually been full, with several people on a waiting list at any given time.
“The point of transition is to help [ex-offenders] begin to adopt conventional living behaviors … so that they can successfully leave our door and move forward with their lives,” DeBellotte-Torres said. “What I mean by ‘conventional living’ is an agreement to not break laws and to change their thinking structure. Criminal thinking is usually the source of their problem.”
DeBellotte-Torres said that they prefer tenants to stay at the house for at least six months.
“Our experience has been that when someone comes out of an incarceration situation … it takes about six months for them to get stability with things like employment and to be able to save money so that when they move out, they’re able to keep going and not end up making bad decisions that land them back where they started,” DeBellotte-Torres said.
Depending on how long they were incarcerated, they need to get acclimated to being on this side of the door. If they’ve been away a long time, technology has changed and job search techniques have changed.
While the staff of OUT are volunteers, DeBellotte-Torres also works as a Job Developer for the Pinellas County Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition (PERC), an organization that supports former inmates in various ways. “I can help [our residents] find work, put together their resumes and use effective job search techniques,” she said. “I look at what their skills are, what work they did previously, and suggest some companies I have relationships with that I can refer them to. The idea is for [the residents] to become independent.”
Her job at PERC means that OUT can serve its residents as a sort of one-stop-shop for information on the various resources available to ex-offenders, helping the residents understand what might otherwise be an overwhelming amount to learn. According to DeBellotte-Torres, PERC also has several mental health and substance abuse classes that OUT residents and other ex-offenders can attend.
OUT uses a peer-to-peer approach at the house and prefers not to have a high turnover rate so that residents can have a sense of unity. “We find that it’s more successful if they have some camaraderie and they begin to care for one another,” DeBellotte-Torres said. “Then they look out for each other and they create groups that go to [substance abuse] meetings together.”
Frank, a resident at the OUT St. Petersburg house, said he views the other residents as a sort of extended family. “You feel at home when you’re here and that’s half the battle,” he said. “There are two younger kids in the room next to me who are dealing with drug issues and they’re always coming to me for help. It’s good for me when I’m helping them because it gives me a good feeling.”
Ferrentino and two other staff members have collectively spent about 75 years incarcerated, DeBellotte- Torres said, which allows them to understand the struggles of OUT residents. “They’re really well experienced with what it takes to succeed—behaviors that need to change, thinking that needs to change—so they can identify when someone’s at a point of going back to their old habits,” DeBellotte-Torres said.
Ferrentino and the other two staff members are very effective at working together and know what will make an individual successful: purposeful engagement in the community, positive role models, giving back, staying clean and sober through recovery programs and things of that nature.
The residents at OUT are enthusiastic about community service and in the past have volunteered with groups such as PERC and Help Us Help You, an HIV awareness organization.
Ferrentino said the rent at the St. Petersburg house is $100 per week, which also covers residents’ costs of utilities, cable and internet.
“They buy their own food and do their own cooking, and we ask that they keep the kitchen clean and help out with chores, since it is community living,” he said. “We had some workout equipment donated—there are some kind people that donate to our houses—and so we set up a workout space for them.”
New residents sign an agreement to a code of living behaviors, such as a 10 p.m. curfew, and must agree to drug testing. If a resident violates the agreement, such as by failing to pay rent for a long period of time or failing multiple drug tests, the OUT staff works with the resident to create a new plan to put them back on track and to avoid another failure.
“We usually give them a second chance because we want to see them succeed, so we try to work through their problems rather than just kicking them out right away,” Ferrentino said.
Residents say the house rules are a small price to pay for the opportunity to live a better life. John, one of the longer-term residents at OUT’s St. Petersburg house, said he values the stability of the transitional house.
“I was a functioning addict,” John said. “The biggest thing you struggle with, with addiction, is your self-worth and hopelessness. It does get better, but you have to catch yourself when you fall, and these people in the house are here for you when you fall. They don’t ridicule you, they will just do whatever it takes to bring you back.”
DeBellotte-Torres said there is a great need for more transitional housing. Most organizations that provide such services, she said, are faith-based; OUT is one of few non-faith-based programs.
“Finding people willing to extend themselves to someone who has not lived by conventional living behaviors by choice in the past—it’s not an easy sell,” DeBellotte-Torres said. “I just wish that there was more awareness and interest in ex-offender needs.
Most of the people who are incarcerated are coming back to the community and with no support, many of them will return to incarceration. It costs only a tenth of what it costs to incarcerate someone to support a program that helps for successful reentry. If the state would spend more money on reentry programs, less money could be spent on long-term incarceration.
To learn more about OUT, please call 813-270-3941 or 704-277-8714.
At the request of residents, surnames were withheld.