Jason Bellows was a Florida inmate on his way out of prison and back into the real world.
At Turning Point Bridges International, a non-profit community for inmates who are transitioning back into the world, he went to work at a company in Pompano Beach, filled out his timesheet, took calls and helped people figure out the logistics of moving their vehicles across the nation. Finding and holding down a job are prerequisites to participate in the program and stay out of prison.
But with two weeks left in his three-and-a-half year sentence, Bellows was sent back. It was not due to anything he did wrong.
"Everything was going great until it wasn't going so great," said Bellows.
In May, the Florida Department of Corrections made $24.9 million in budget cuts, due to the Department being underfunded by the state budget. The cuts canceled or decreased funding for 67 facilities across the state, including to facilities that help inmates get jobs before release, as well as mental health and substance abuse programs, and even prison chaplain services. The cuts all come into effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year, on July 1.
The contract for Turning Point Bridges International was canceled. Two dozen employees lost their jobs and 100 inmates were sent back to prison, including Bellows.
He was in prison for grand theft, trafficking in stolen property, giving false information to a pawn broker and driving with a suspended license. (He says he was trying to help a friend and unknowingly knew the property was stolen.)
“I was highly upset because one, I lost my job. And two, you’re putting me with a couple weeks left back in an environment where anything can happen,” says Bellows. “I can either end up hurt, dead or have my time pushed back.”
The Florida Department of Corrections says the closure of the facilities and the cuts are unfortunate, but lawmakers simply did not give them enough money to fully fund operations. The only part of the budget where they had flexibility was in contractor services, so that was where cuts had to be made.
“At the start of the next fiscal year, we will be reducing some of our current contracts with community providers. Additionally, we are reducing operating costs to include maintenance, repair, utilities, and working to find every possible internal solution to reduce costs in order to maximize services for inmates and offenders,” said the Department in a statement. “It is our hope that these decisions, while necessary given the circumstances, are temporary and a positive working partnership with our community partners can continue in the future.”
A few weeks after the facility shut down, WLRN joined Bridges International’s chief operating officer Jim McClelland as he went back to check in on the facility in Pompano Beach. The single remaining employee mowed the lawn and cuts weeds in front of windows strapped with wooden boards to stop any vandalism. A pile of mangoes rotted under a tree that hangs over the facility’s workout station.
The room that used to house 60 inmates was reduced to the hollow buzz of incandescent lighting, and row after row of empty beds.
“It’s hard to swallow. If you’ve been here and you’ve seen the effects of reentry programs like ours, it’s hard to come here now and think of those men and women that aren’t receiving these services,” says McClelland.
“We don’t know how [this] will look yet for our court systems,” he added. “Whether more people will end up going back to jail than previously did, or state prison. And typically those beds are more expensive than the work that we do.”
The fallout from the cancellation of the Bridges International contract affected local employers, who were depending on inmates for key roles.
J.D. Danner owns Pallet King, a shop in Pompano Beach that builds and repairs wooden pallets used for shipping. Four of her employees were sent back to state prison when the contract was canceled, leaving her scrambling to find trained workers who would also be able to withstand the hard work, running power tools under a blistering sun.
For the past 15 years her shop has fielded workers through the program, keeping them on the job even after they get fully released from state supervision.
“They wanna be here. They’re here on time. They even wanna work on the weekends if we need them, even on the holidays,” she says. “Prior to this system we had people who were actually being looked for by the police and they were arrested here. Now it works out because we’re having people on the other side of it, people who have been through that, and now they want to fix their lives.”
She’s even got a catchphrase for the shop’s ethos: “We recycle pallets and we rebuild lives.”
If the program was reinstated she would take back the employees without a second thought. She struggles to come to terms what led up to this situation.
“I don’t understand how anyone who is making these decisions in the political arena could think this would be a good idea. When people are trying to rebuild their lives, to be sent back to prison is a pretty big blow,” she says.
After Bellows was sent back to prison for his last two weeks, he had no idea if his job would be waiting for him when he was back on the street. But his bosses liked him, and things worked out.
“I called the day I got out and they were like: ‘Yeah please come in today, start today!’” he says.
He described the experience of going back to prison as a mixed bag. On the one hand it was “hell on earth”; on the other it was an “eyeopener to remind me of where I don’t want to come back to.”
If it wasn’t for the program, he says, he doesn’t think he would have been ready for life back in the real world. “I would have gotten out with not a clue of what to do, nowhere to go, and a bunch of time with just a bunch of thoughts in my head,” he says.
Now, he has a steady job, is back in the life of his children, and says that he wants to get his own home and make his mother proud of him.