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State, local officials join ex-prisoners to protest proposed closing Bridges of America center

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A group of state and local elected officials, as well as reformed ex-prisoners who know firsthand what the Bridges of America Orlando Transition Center can do, appeared Monday morning to protest the possible closing of the center by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The center is being considered for closure due to what Bridges of America presumed was budgetary constraints.

But years of results have shown the center to cost taxpayers less money and reduce recidivism, it asserted at Monday’s news conference.

If the center is closed, the inmates in the program would have to operate out of the prison itself.

At Monday’s news conference, reformed ex-prisoners Jeffery VannockerJames Rogers and Jacob Deibler made an impassioned, emotional appeal as to why the current center at 2001 Mercy Drive is ideal — and why the program worked, through sharing their stories.

“Being at this program helped me in so many ways,” Vannocker said. “It was able to open my mind artistically, I did a lot of family days, and they got me into work releases and an excellent job. The counselors helped me with anger management, criminal thinking errors, stuff along those lines. When I got back into the real world, it helped me get ready for society, and the pressures you’re not used to being incarcerated.”

He said one of the most memorable experiences he had with the center was seeing his daughter on Christmas one year after initially not being allowed to.

“I was afforded the opportunity to learn quite a bit about myself, and why I was acting and behaving the way I was,” Rogers said. “Learning came through the process of group therapy, receiving feedback from peers, and one on one counseling, receiving feedback from counselors who not only had been there before, but also were educated to help us understand the reasons for our criminality and substance abuse.”

Deibler said the program at the center was a simulation of sorts to what it’s like to being in normal society.

“There’s more freedom here,” he said. “It’s a place where my thoughts can be heard, where I can put to practice my philosophies. I can make a difference within the community. There’s responsibility, personal and collective responsibility. The thawing process from prison took more than a year to remedy. They make you dig deep and identify thinking patterns, help you cleanse your soul. It’s not easy. It’s not painless.”

Deibler said it was “monstrous” for the FDOC to consider closing down the center, especially under the pretense of saving money.

“Now we’re free men, and we’re taxpayers,” he said. “The state already makes money off our investment.”

State legislators Randolph Bracy, Victor Torres, Mike Miller, Eric Eisnaugle and Bob Cortes also appeared, joining City of Orlando Commissioner Regina Hill and County Commissioner Bryan Nelson. All were fiercely opposed to the idea of closing the Bridges to America center.

Hill, in particular, delivered a fiery defense of the program, accusing the FDOC of wanting to “throw inmates behind prison walls and then throw them in the streets,” and saying it would be impossible for inmates to “stop thinking like criminals” if the Bridges of America program was closed.

“What type of society are we living in, when we’re talking about second chances, 21st century policing, re-entry, but we’re not walking the walk?” she asked.

In a news release issued Monday, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones stated the department wasn’t looking to sever ties with Bridges of America, but rather inviting them to participate in new efforts to combat recidivism and substance abuse on wider scales. Jones cited the FDOC’s new Spectrum program as an example.

“This is an exciting time for FDC and I want to make it very clear that we are not limiting services or the number of individuals served,” she wrote. “If fact, we are soliciting bids for a contract in Orange County that increases the number of work release beds and substance abuse care. Today, more than 60 percent of the Department’s substance use disorder budget is dedicated to treating only a small number of individuals. We know we can do better. We want to provide more services to treat an even greater number of individuals with the same resources.”

Jones goes on to state that every action the department takes is “strategic and advances our mission to serve Florida’s most challenging population by offering them the greatest chance to succeed.”

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