FRRC
RETURNING CITIZEN
STORIES

FRRC
RETURNING CITIZEN
STORIES

RETURNING CITIZEN STORIES

Committed to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination
against people with convictions.

Angel

“I went from being a defendant in the courtroom where I once got 30 years to a Judicial intern in that program and in that courtroom.”
 – Angel, Department of Justice Second Chance Act Fellow

We are so grateful that this story took a different path. If things had been intended, longtime Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) employee Angel Sanchez would still be in prison.

On Friday, September 16, 2022, Angel received his lifelong wish of becoming a lawyer. He was sworn in Friday to the Washington D.C. Bar in the same Miami courthouse where he had been previously sentenced to years in prison some years ago. Angel, grateful for his journey and many of his mentors that helped him along the way, recounts his journey saying it wasn’t easy.

Sanchez said, “I was nine years old when I had my first run-in with the law.”

From the jailhouse, schoolhouse, and now the courthouse, Angel didn’t let his past life stop him from chasing his dreams.  

40-year-old Angel Sanchez was just sworn into the D.C. bar and moved to Washington DC earlier this year to work for the Department of Justice under a ‘Second Chance’ fellowship. He will work with the department to provide expert advice on criminal justice reform. Angel said much of his work with FRRC helped prepare him for his career path. 

This ambitious law school graduate’s journey didn’t start there, though; the Miami native spent much of his young adult life behind bars. Angel had his first run-in with the law at just nine years old.

“Once I get arrested and see that I’ve found popularity….” said Sanchez. “I figured out a hack that would eventually lead to destruction, but for a child, what’s the alternative?”

Angel said he would go on to have several more run-ins with the law through his teenage years. He said much of the trouble he got into was because he was trying to fit in with his peers and belong to a community. At 13, he was involved in a shooting that got him locked up for a year. When he was 16, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Sanchez said, “I think the first thing that led to me making the choices I made growing up is because they were normal. If they were abnormal, I probably wouldn’t have done it right. I always wanted to belong; I wanted to fit in.”

Angel said although his early years were tough, he equates much of his success later in life to his parents. He says his dad, who immigrated from Cuba, always taught him the value of hard work and education. 

“He believed in the American dream, one that he couldn’t pursue,” said Sanchez.  

Angel says he would often reflect on what his dad taught him as a child while he was locked up. He says he just wanted to make him proud.

“I didn’t know how, but I had his words in the back of my mind as a possibility,” said Sanchez. “This is a formula, work hard and get an education, and it is not very far from most immigrant families.”

Angel’s parents separated when he was young, and his mom often struggled with drug addiction. He says although he grew up with his dad, his mom was never far away.

Sanchez said, “When I was in prison, she stepped up when my dad passed away, and she used to take me to visit him….”

Angel said his dad encouraging him to get an education would ultimately pay off and change the trajectory of his life.

While in prison, Angel got a job at the prison library, where he discovered his passion for the law field. He earned his GED and a Paralegal Certificate while in prison. His love for the area came in handy and led to him writing several appeals, ultimately cutting his sentence in half. 

In 2011, at the age of 28, after serving 12 years in prison, he was released.

Angel says after getting out of prison, a chance encounter would ultimately change the trajectory of his life. He says he stumbled upon a news article given to him by his cousin one day. He says the article featured a picture of a man named Desmond Meade, the Executive Director of FRRC. Angel said in the report Meade discussed how important it was for everyone to be able to vote regardless of their past convictions. Angel says Meade also discussed how he was able to turn his life around, and that was just the inspiration he needed to keep pushing.

“FRRC, to me, is a special place because of what it signifies. It signifies that the people who have been stigmatized and excluded and have even been part of the problem, if given a chance and believed in, will be part of the solution,” said Sanchez.

 

That defining moment would change his life forever and lead to a longstanding partnership as a leader with FRRC. He worked alongside the grassroots organization that led the way in passing Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for 1.4 million people with felony convictions. 

Angel said, along with working with FRRC, he knew that when he was released from prison, he wanted to return to Miami but was afraid he would get into trouble. That’s when he determined that he would have to make a change for the better.

Sanchez said, “I was self-educated for 12 years and got out. Then, wanting to go to college, I moved into a shelter and went to Valencia Community College.”

After Angel got out of prison, he moved to Orlando and stayed in a Salvation Army men’s shelter while taking classes at Valencia Community College. He says it was a long road, but he didn’t let it stop him from getting to the finish line.

“I’m here with a 4.0, two degrees, graduating with honors, and throughout most of my time at Valencia, I was homeless,” said Angel Sanchez.

That was Angel delivering his commencement speech. In 2014 he graduated with two associate degrees from Valencia Community College at the top of his class. After graduation, he was determined to keep going with his education.

“I got selected as the Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, which is the most prestigious scholarship for community college students,” said Sanchez. “You get up to forty thousand a year to go to your school of choice.”

Excited to get the scholarship, Angel ran into yet another hurdle. Valencia Community College had a Direct Connect Program with the University of Central Florida (UCF), which made it easier to transfer credits into their Bachelor’s Program. The problem was that they wouldn’t accept him until he had served half his ten years of probation. Angel was determined not to give up, so he immediately devised a plan.

“Thanks to the State Attorney who saw my case, to the defender who took my case pro bono, and to the judge, they decided not to reduce my probation but to terminate it outright. Then the judge offered me an internship in her courtroom that summer. I went from being a defendant in the courtroom where I once got 30 years to a Judicial intern in that program and in that courtroom,” said Sanchez.

Angel says he’s grateful for the chance encounters he’s made, including his work with FRRC. It’s helped him get closer to his lifelong dream of being a lawyer. In 2017, he earned two bachelor’s degrees from UCF; in 2020, he graduated with a J.D. from the University of Miami School of law in the top 10% of his class. On Friday, September 16, 2022, Angel was sworn into the D.C. bar. Due to his past convictions, he’s unable to apply to the Florida Bar and is still fighting to get his civil rights restored.

Earlier this year, he began working with the Department of Justice as a Second Chance Act Fellow. During his fellowship, he is focusing on restoring and enhancing access to education for people with criminal convictions.

“As a formerly incarcerated individual, I am humbled and excited by the opportunity to serve as a Second Chance Act Fellow,” said Sanchez. “This fellowship will give me the opportunity—and responsibility—of centralizing the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to ensure that their experiences inform our work, and their insights illuminate blind spots and important areas we might have been neglecting.”

Angel’s story is a testament to why we must overhaul our criminal justice system. Giving people a second chance is not only good for the individual but good for the community and economy as well.

Alfred

“I tried to get a business, I was going to open a bar. They denied me a license because of my record. They suggested I get the liquor license in someone else’s name.”
 – Alfred, FRRC Member

Some children aspire to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, or even politicians. One returning citizen shares his story of how he grew up and admired people who went to prison. Growing up on the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina was rough for 54-year-old Alfred. Alfred said he got in a lot of trouble growing up because he didn’t have a family to go home to. His mother suffered from Sickle Cell Anemia and was constantly in and out of the hospital. His father was typically working and never at home so he was practically raised by the streets.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that some of the decisions he would make as a youngster would have long-lasting consequences. Alfred had his first run-in with the law at just 17-years-old. He has been back and forth to jail and prison throughout his life. In 2018, he was released from prison after serving a few years behind bars. Once released from prison, he vowed never to return.

Alfred said, although it’s been years since he was in prison, his criminal background has made it hard to find a job. “It’s frustrating, one of the worst punishments is to deny someone an opportunity to provide for themselves.” Since November 2021, he’s applied to about 50 jobs and has only gotten two job offers.

People who complete their sentence after being released from prison should be given the same opportunity as everyone else. This story is a good reminder as to why #SecondChanceMonth is so important and why everyone should be given a second chance once they complete their jail or prison sentence.

Alfred said he’s grateful for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and the support and resources they provide to returning citizens. He became involved with FRRC after hearing an FRRC staff member speak at a job-training class he was attending. He said it’s nice to have a group of individuals that have walked your path and understand the obstacles you face.

Pamela

“This weekend, for me, was an experience that although I was coming to give inspiration and empower the women, I was inspired and I received a lot of empowerment in return.”
 – Pamela, RestoreHER

Meet Pamela Winn! Pamela is a national activist from Atlanta, Georgia and the founder of RestoreHer. RestoreHer is a reentry organization that advocates to end the mass incarceration of pregnant women and women of color. Winn has gained notoriety all around the world with her leadership with the anti-shackling movement. She helped successfully spearhead HB 345, the bipartisan bill that was passed in Georgia back in 2019, which ended the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons.

Winn attended FRRC’s 2022 Women’s Healing Retreat. She shared with the women at the retreat how the anti-shackling movement came about.  A decade before, Winn’s life looked very different.  In 2008, she was sentenced to serve 78 months in prison for a white-collar crime. She says, at the time she had been working as an OB-GYN nurse for more than 10 years and had graduated from Spelman College.  Winn says her mother struggled with substance issues and she ended up struggling with them as well. That lifestyle landed her behind bars and during the intake process, she discovered she was six weeks pregnant. She fell while climbing into a prison van and a few days later, she started bleeding. She says she believes it was because she was shackled and didn’t receive the proper prenatal care.

After being released Winn joined advocacy groups and vowed to make changes to the criminal justice system. She helped spearhead the successful bipartisan 2019 bill that prohibited the shackling of pregnant women in prisons and jails. Several different versions of the bill have since been adopted in 19 different states.

Winn says, sharing her story at the retreat was not only healing for her but for others as well. She said, “The retreat, for me, was an experience that although I was coming to give inspiration and empower the women, I was inspired and I received a lot of empowerment in return.”

Please feel free to view Winn’s short film or you can visit @WINNmovie on Instagram for more information.

Coral

“I am unafraid and unashamed to tell my story and to tell where I’ve come from and how hard I had to work to get where I am.”
– Coral, Empower To Change

‘I will see to it that this follows you for the rest of your life and ruins you for the rest of your life.’

That’s what Coral Nichols of Seminole, Florida says a judge told her when she was convicted of a felony at the age of 23. In some ways, he was right. Coral struggled to find a job while on probation after getting out of prison.

“Part of probation is to be gainfully employed,” Coral said. “But every door gets slammed in your face because you have to report that you have a felony conviction.”

The judge wasn’t the only one making predictions about Coral’s future.

“On my way out of prison, they said they would see me again,” Coral said.

That prediction was one she would dedicate her life to proving wrong.

“They certainly didn’t help me transition back into society. And so I decided to get an education, and I decided to make a difference,” Coral said. “I just decided that they were not going to see me again unless I was going in and helping somebody, somehow, some way.”

Now, Coral works with an organization she helped found called Empower to Change that assists Floridians in diversion programs to help them deal with the challenges of the criminal justice system. She says the work she does with directly impacted people every day inspires her to keep fighting for an end to the disenfranchisement and discrimination returning citizens still face.

“When you look at the whole gamut of the criminal justice system that needs to be changed, we are the professionals in our field,” Coral said. “We are the people that should be sitting at the table. We know what it’s like from the inside out, we know how hard it is to change our lives.”

Coral thinks her story of hard work and redemption is echoed by many returning citizens.

“I am unafraid and unashamed to tell my story and to tell where I’ve come from and how hard I had to work to get where I am. There are lots of people that change their lives. I am no exception to the rule, and if I’m determined, then so are so many other people.”

 

 

James

“I put out an application after application…they told me the best of luck with my future endeavors and to call back in five to seven years.”
– James, FRRC Chapter Member

Systematic laws put into place during the Jim Crow era have successfully disenfranchised the Returning Citizen community. In Florida, this bias is most prevalent in the form of multiple barriers that hinder formerly incarcerated and convicted individuals from being able to participate in democracy, obtain desirable careers, and live freely where they choose.

James, who is now 30 had a run in with the law that ended up costing him over 6 years of his life. After serving his time he was faced with the all to familiar barrier presented before the returning citizen community. Finding a job.

It has been a struggle. James currently spends his time at Kaleos Ministries in Orlando, FL. A powerful advocate with a testimony that he uses to inform others of the dangers of making certain decisions. He is not alone. Over 1.4 million Returning Citizens join him in the fight for a true inclusive democracy. For many, their reality is the same. Feeling uncared for and neglected numerous persons within the returning citizen community fail to reintegrate into society due to a multitude of factors. 

Among these factors, job licensing is one of the most important issues facing Returning Citizens right now, as the prospect of an enjoyable career brings forth the ability to provide sustenance to yourself and your loved ones. Without these opportunities, Florida’s disenfranchised community continues to suffer. Some may rise above these challenges, but not all are so fortunate to come to the same conclusion. Many returning citizens don’t have the support systems needed to get back on their feet or even worse are surmounted to paying substantial fines and fees by working jobs that provide unsatisfactory wages. 

The road to reform is a long one, and well traveled. The struggle binds Florida’s returning citizen community together. While James and others just like him fight for fair opportunities to move ahead, organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition come alongside them to positively impact the criminal justice system and create better opportunities for people. Though the fight is long from over, James can rest assured knowing that he is not alone, and that his fight might help people like him in the future have better access to jobs, housing and opportunity.  

 

Lance

“It was easier to start my OWN business than to work for someone.”
– Lance, Lightmark Aerial

For many individuals seeking to make their way back into society post-conviction, the path is unclear and difficult to maneuver. Lance, 41, encountered many of the familiar obstacles faced by Florida’s Returning Citizen community. After serving his time incarcerated, Lance went on to involve himself in his community and advocate for criminal justice reform as well as policy change. Now, a proud member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, he spends his time working to impact the lives of over 1.4 million people in the Sunshine state.  

Lance is also a small business owner. But that wasn’t always the plan. After working in the restaurant industry post-incarceration, Lance began to look for work that would be a better fit for him long term. Unfortunately, he struggled to make progress, in part because of the challenge to get a job license in a new field. 

“It was easier to start my own business than to work for someone else,” said Lance.

 Founder of Lightmark Aerial, Lance recalls the familiar obstacle of job licensing in Florida. For many, this leads ambitious Returning Citizens to dive into a realm of entrepreneurship. Such is the case here and for thousands of other business leaders in the Returning Citizen community.  These barriers successfully discourage individuals impacted by the criminal justice system from attempting to obtain manageable wages and pursuing desirable careers. Ultimately, forcing many Returning Citizens to turn to the streets for shelter, food and housing.

However, work is being done behind the scenes and at the forefront of our democracy to effectively implement substantial change in the criminal justice system. Organizations like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led by Executive Director Desmond Meade have helped to pave the way for a renewed understanding of what it means to be a Returning Citizen. With the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 over 1.4 million men and women now have access to go out and vote. While much work still needs to be done, it is done in stride as we mark the beginning of a new era, where hope and opportunity are driving us to improve our workforce rules so returning citizens can access employment opportunities like anyone else.

 

 

Marquis

Selected by Elisa

“I wanted to go to be a registered nurse but because of my charge, I couldn’t participate in the program.”
– Marquis, Dirt Master LLC

Born in the Sunshine State, Marquis was directly filed as an adult though he was a teen in his youth. Upon his release, Marquis sought to turn his life around and worked very hard over the years to establish himself as a leader within the local community. Now serving as the Central Florida Regional Canvasser for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, he paves the way as an inspiration to many near and afar. Though, this did not come without its fair share of trials.

Having a criminal record introduces an adjustment to the lifestyle and opportunities presented in an individual’s life. Shifting priorities, job outlook, and educational aspirations are only but a few. While enabling job licensing opportunities would serve to enrich the economy, encourage a safer, more hopeful re-entry, and strengthen local communities, it remains unattainable for many – including Marquis. 

“I wanted to go to be a registered nurse but because of my charge, I couldn’t participate in the program,” Marquis said, outlining how his inability to get a license tangibly impacted his ability to move forward in his life, and support his family. 

Marquis is not alone.

Florida remains among the states that uphold these adages of eras past. Presently, with the help of Marquis and organizations like the FRRC and the Florida Policy Institute, people will continue to rise and pave the way for positive change in the lives of over 1.4 million men and women in Florida with past felony convictions.

 

Angel

We are so grateful that this story took a different path. If things had been intended, longtime Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) employee Angel Sanchez would still be in prison.

On Friday, September 16, 2022, Angel received his lifelong wish of becoming a lawyer. He was sworn in Friday to the Washington D.C. Bar in the same Miami courthouse where he had been previously sentenced to years in prison some years ago. Angel, grateful for his journey and many of his mentors that helped him along the way, recounts his journey saying it wasn’t easy.

Sanchez said, “I was nine years old when I had my first run-in with the law.”

From the jailhouse, schoolhouse, and now the courthouse, Angel didn’t let his past life stop him from chasing his dreams.  

40-year-old Angel Sanchez was just sworn into the D.C. bar and moved to Washington DC earlier this year to work for the Department of Justice under a ‘Second Chance’ fellowship. He will work with the department to provide expert advice on criminal justice reform. Angel said much of his work with FRRC helped prepare him for his career path. 

This ambitious law school graduate’s journey didn’t start there, though; the Miami native spent much of his young adult life behind bars. Angel had his first run-in with the law at just nine years old.

“Once I get arrested and see that I’ve found popularity….” said Sanchez. “I figured out a hack that would eventually lead to destruction, but for a child, what’s the alternative?”

Angel said he would go on to have several more run-ins with the law through his teenage years. He said much of the trouble he got into was because he was trying to fit in with his peers and belong to a community. At 13, he was involved in a shooting that got him locked up for a year. When he was 16, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Sanchez said, “I think the first thing that led to me making the choices I made growing up is because they were normal. If they were abnormal, I probably wouldn’t have done it right. I always wanted to belong; I wanted to fit in.”

Angel said although his early years were tough, he equates much of his success later in life to his parents. He says his dad, who immigrated from Cuba, always taught him the value of hard work and education. 

“He believed in the American dream, one that he couldn’t pursue,” said Sanchez.  

Angel says he would often reflect on what his dad taught him as a child while he was locked up. He says he just wanted to make him proud.

“I didn’t know how, but I had his words in the back of my mind as a possibility,” said Sanchez. “This is a formula, work hard and get an education, and it is not very far from most immigrant families.”

Angel’s parents separated when he was young, and his mom often struggled with drug addiction. He says although he grew up with his dad, his mom was never far away.

Sanchez said, “When I was in prison, she stepped up when my dad passed away, and she used to take me to visit him….”

Angel said his dad encouraging him to get an education would ultimately pay off and change the trajectory of his life.

While in prison, Angel got a job at the prison library, where he discovered his passion for the law field. He earned his GED and a Paralegal Certificate while in prison. His love for the area came in handy and led to him writing several appeals, ultimately cutting his sentence in half. 

In 2011, at the age of 28, after serving 12 years in prison, he was released.

Angel says after getting out of prison, a chance encounter would ultimately change the trajectory of his life. He says he stumbled upon a news article given to him by his cousin one day. He says the article featured a picture of a man named Desmond Meade, the Executive Director of FRRC. Angel said in the report Meade discussed how important it was for everyone to be able to vote regardless of their past convictions. Angel says Meade also discussed how he was able to turn his life around, and that was just the inspiration he needed to keep pushing.

“FRRC, to me, is a special place because of what it signifies. It signifies that the people who have been stigmatized and excluded and have even been part of the problem, if given a chance and believed in, will be part of the solution,” said Sanchez.

That defining moment would change his life forever and lead to a longstanding partnership as a leader with FRRC. He worked alongside the grassroots organization that led the way in passing Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for 1.4 million people with felony convictions. 

Angel said, along with working with FRRC, he knew that when he was released from prison, he wanted to return to Miami but was afraid he would get into trouble. That’s when he determined that he would have to make a change for the better.

Sanchez said, “I was self-educated for 12 years and got out. Then, wanting to go to college, I moved into a shelter and went to Valencia Community College.”

After Angel got out of prison, he moved to Orlando and stayed in a Salvation Army men’s shelter while taking classes at Valencia Community College. He says it was a long road, but he didn’t let it stop him from getting to the finish line.

“I’m here with a 4.0, two degrees, graduating with honors, and throughout most of my time at Valencia, I was homeless,” said Angel Sanchez.

That was Angel delivering his commencement speech. In 2014 he graduated with two associate degrees from Valencia Community College at the top of his class. After graduation, he was determined to keep going with his education.

“I got selected as the Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, which is the most prestigious scholarship for community college students,” said Sanchez. “You get up to forty thousand a year to go to your school of choice.”

Excited to get the scholarship, Angel ran into yet another hurdle. Valencia Community College had a Direct Connect Program with the University of Central Florida (UCF), which made it easier to transfer credits into their Bachelor’s Program. The problem was that they wouldn’t accept him until he had served half his ten years of probation. Angel was determined not to give up, so he immediately devised a plan.

“Thanks to the State Attorney who saw my case, to the defender who took my case pro bono, and to the judge, they decided not to reduce my probation but to terminate it outright. Then the judge offered me an internship in her courtroom that summer. I went from being a defendant in the courtroom where I once got 30 years to a Judicial intern in that program and in that courtroom,” said Sanchez.

Angel says he’s grateful for the chance encounters he’s made, including his work with FRRC. It’s helped him get closer to his lifelong dream of being a lawyer. In 2017, he earned two bachelor’s degrees from UCF; in 2020, he graduated with a J.D. from the University of Miami School of law in the top 10% of his class. On Friday, September 16, 2022, Angel was sworn into the D.C. bar. Due to his past convictions, he’s unable to apply to the Florida Bar and is still fighting to get his civil rights restored.

Earlier this year, he began working with the Department of Justice as a Second Chance Act Fellow. During his fellowship, he is focusing on restoring and enhancing access to education for people with criminal convictions.

“As a formerly incarcerated individual, I am humbled and excited by the opportunity to serve as a Second Chance Act Fellow,” said Sanchez. “This fellowship will give me the opportunity—and responsibility—of centralizing the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to ensure that their experiences inform our work, and their insights illuminate blind spots and important areas we might have been neglecting.”

Angel’s story is a testament to why we must overhaul our criminal justice system. Giving people a second chance is not only good for the individual but good for the community and economy as well.

 

“I went from being a defendant in the courtroom where I once got 30 years to a Judicial intern in that program and in that courtroom.”
 – Angel, Department of Justice Second Chance Act Fellow

“FRRC to me is a special place because of what it signifies. It signifies that the people who have been stigmatized and have been excluded and have even been part of the problem if given a chance and believed in, will be part of the solution.”
 – Angel, Department of Justice Second Chance Act Fellow

“This fellowship will give me the opportunity—and responsibility—of centralizing the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to ensure that their experiences inform our work, and their insights illuminate blind spots and important areas we might have been neglecting.”
 – Angel, Department of Justice Second Chance Act Fellow

“I tried to get a business, I was going to open a bar. They denied me a license because of my record. They suggested I get the liquor license in someone else’s name.”
 – Alfred, FRRC Member

Alfred

Some children aspire to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, or even politicians. One returning citizen shares his story of how he grew up and admired people who went to prison. Growing up on the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina was rough for 54-year-old Alfred. Alfred said he got in a lot of trouble growing up because he didn’t have a family to go home to. His mother suffered from Sickle Cell Anemia and was constantly in and out of the hospital. His father was typically working and never at home so he was practically raised by the streets.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that some of the decisions he would make as a youngster would have long-lasting consequences. Alfred had his first run-in with the law at just 17-years-old. He has been back and forth to jail and prison throughout his life. In 2018, he was released from prison after serving a few years behind bars. Once released from prison, he vowed never to return.

Alfred said, although it’s been years since he was in prison, his criminal background has made it hard to find a job. “It’s frustrating, one of the worst punishments is to deny someone an opportunity to provide for themselves.” Since November 2021, he’s applied to about 50 jobs and has only gotten two job offers.

People who complete their sentence after being released from prison should be given the same opportunity as everyone else. This story is a good reminder as to why #SecondChanceMonth is so important and why everyone should be given a second chance once they complete their jail or prison sentence.

Alfred said he’s grateful for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and the support and resources they provide to returning citizens. He became involved with FRRC after hearing an FRRC staff member speak at a job-training class he was attending. He said it’s nice to have a group of individuals that have walked your path and understand the obstacles you face.

Pamela

Meet Pamela Winn! Pamela is a national activist from Atlanta, Georgia and the founder of RestoreHer. RestoreHer is a reentry organization that advocates to end the mass incarceration of pregnant women and women of color. Winn has gained notoriety all around the world with her leadership with the anti-shackling movement. She helped successfully spearhead HB 345, the bipartisan bill that was passed in Georgia back in 2019, which ended the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons.

Winn attended FRRC’s 2022 Women’s Healing Retreat. She shared with the women at the retreat how the anti-shackling movement came about.  A decade before, Winn’s life looked very different.  In 2008, she was sentenced to serve 78 months in prison for a white-collar crime. She says, at the time she had been working as an OB-GYN nurse for more than 10 years and had graduated from Spelman College.  Winn says her mother struggled with substance issues and she ended up struggling with them as well. That lifestyle landed her behind bars and during the intake process, she discovered she was six weeks pregnant. She fell while climbing into a prison van and a few days later, she started bleeding. She says she believes it was because she was shackled and didn’t receive the proper prenatal care.

After being released Winn joined advocacy groups and vowed to make changes to the criminal justice system. She helped spearhead the successful bipartisan 2019 bill that prohibited the shackling of pregnant women in prisons and jails. Several different versions of the bill have since been adopted in 19 different states.

Winn says, sharing her story at the retreat was not only healing for her but for others as well. She said, “The retreat, for me, was an experience that although I was coming to give inspiration and empower the women, I was inspired and I received a lot of empowerment in return.”

Please feel free to view Winn’s short film or you can visit @WINNmovie on Instagram for more information.

This weekend, for me, was an experience that although I was coming to give inspiration and empower the women, I was inspired and I received a lot of empowerment in return.”
 – Pamela, RestoreHER

“I am unafraid and unashamed to tell my story and to tell where I’ve come from and how hard I had to work to get where I am.”
– Coral, Empower To Change

Coral

‘I will see to it that this follows you for the rest of your life and ruins you for the rest of your life.’

That’s what Coral Nichols of Seminole, Florida says a judge told her when she was convicted of a felony at the age of 23. In some ways, he was right. Coral struggled to find a job while on probation after getting out of prison.

“Part of probation is to be gainfully employed,” Coral said. “But every door gets slammed in your face because you have to report that you have a felony conviction.”

The judge wasn’t the only one making predictions about Coral’s future.

“On my way out of prison, they said they would see me again,” Coral said.

That prediction was one she would dedicate her life to proving wrong.

“They certainly didn’t help me transition back into society. And so I decided to get an education, and I decided to make a difference,” Coral said. “I just decided that they were not going to see me again unless I was going in and helping somebody, somehow, some way.”

Now, Coral works with an organization she helped found called Empower to Change that assists Floridians in diversion programs to help them deal with the challenges of the criminal justice system. She says the work she does with directly impacted people every day inspires her to keep fighting for an end to the disenfranchisement and discrimination returning citizens still face.

“When you look at the whole gamut of the criminal justice system that needs to be changed, we are the professionals in our field,” Coral said. “We are the people that should be sitting at the table. We know what it’s like from the inside out, we know how hard it is to change our lives.”

Coral thinks her story of hard work and redemption is echoed by many returning citizens.

“I am unafraid and unashamed to tell my story and to tell where I’ve come from and how hard I had to work to get where I am. There are lots of people that change their lives. I am no exception to the rule, and if I’m determined, then so are so many other people.”

 

 

James

Systematic laws put into place during the Jim Crow era have successfully disenfranchised the Returning Citizen community. In Florida, this bias is most prevalent in the form of multiple barriers that hinder formerly incarcerated and convicted individuals from being able to participate in democracy, obtain desirable careers, and live freely where they choose.

James, who is now 30 had a run in with the law that ended up costing him over 6 years of his life. After serving his time he was faced with the all to familiar barrier presented before the returning citizen community. Finding a job.

It has been a struggle. James currently spends his time at Kaleos Ministries in Orlando, FL. A powerful advocate with a testimony that he uses to inform others of the dangers of making certain decisions. He is not alone. Over 1.4 million Returning Citizens join him in the fight for a true inclusive democracy. For many, their reality is the same. Feeling uncared for and neglected numerous persons within the returning citizen community fail to reintegrate into society due to a multitude of factors. 

Among these factors, job licensing is one of the most important issues facing Returning Citizens right now, as the prospect of an enjoyable career brings forth the ability to provide sustenance to yourself and your loved ones. Without these opportunities, Florida’s disenfranchised community continues to suffer. Some may rise above these challenges, but not all are so fortunate to come to the same conclusion. Many returning citizens don’t have the support systems needed to get back on their feet or even worse are surmounted to paying substantial fines and fees by working jobs that provide unsatisfactory wages. 

The road to reform is a long one, and well traveled. The struggle binds Florida’s returning citizen community together. While James and others just like him fight for fair opportunities to move ahead, organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition come alongside them to positively impact the criminal justice system and create better opportunities for people. Though the fight is long from over, James can rest assured knowing that he is not alone, and that his fight might help people like him in the future have better access to jobs, housing and opportunity.  

 

“I put out an application after application…they told me the best of luck with my future endeavors and to call back in five to seven years.”
– James, FRRC Chapter Member

It was easier to start my OWN business than to work for someone.”
– Lance, Lightmark Aerial

Lance

For many individuals seeking to make their way back into society post-conviction, the path is unclear and difficult to maneuver. Lance, 41, encountered many of the familiar obstacles faced by Florida’s Returning Citizen community. After serving his time incarcerated, Lance went on to involve himself in his community and advocate for criminal justice reform as well as policy change. Now, a proud member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, he spends his time working to impact the lives of over 1.4 million people in the Sunshine state.  

Lance is also a small business owner. But that wasn’t always the plan. After working in the restaurant industry post-incarceration, Lance began to look for work that would be a better fit for him long term. Unfortunately, he struggled to make progress, in part because of the challenge to get a job license in a new field. 

“It was easier to start my own business than to work for someone else,” said Lance.

 Founder of Lightmark Aerial, Lance recalls the familiar obstacle of job licensing in Florida. For many, this leads ambitious Returning Citizens to dive into a realm of entrepreneurship. Such is the case here and for thousands of other business leaders in the Returning Citizen community.  These barriers successfully discourage individuals impacted by the criminal justice system from attempting to obtain manageable wages and pursuing desirable careers. Ultimately, forcing many Returning Citizens to turn to the streets for shelter, food and housing.

However, work is being done behind the scenes and at the forefront of our democracy to effectively implement substantial change in the criminal justice system. Organizations like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led by Executive Director Desmond Meade have helped to pave the way for a renewed understanding of what it means to be a Returning Citizen. With the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 over 1.4 million men and women now have access to go out and vote. While much work still needs to be done, it is done in stride as we mark the beginning of a new era, where hope and opportunity are driving us to improve our workforce rules so returning citizens can access employment opportunities like anyone else.

 

 

Marquis

Among these determined individuals is Marquis. Born in the Sunshine State, Marquis was directly filed as an adult though he was a teen in his youth. Upon his release, Marquis sought to turn his life around and worked very hard over the years to establish himself as a leader within the local community. Now serving as the Central Florida Regional Canvasser for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, he paves the way as an inspiration to many near and afar. Though, this did not come without its fair share of trials.

Having a criminal record introduces an adjustment to the lifestyle and opportunities presented in an individual’s life. Shifting priorities, job outlook, and educational aspirations are only but a few. While enabling job licensing opportunities would serve to enrich the economy, encourage a safer, more hopeful re-entry, and strengthen local communities, it remains unattainable for many – including Marquis. 

“I wanted to go to be a registered nurse but because of my charge, I couldn’t participate in the program,” Marquis said, outlining how his inability to get a license tangibly impacted his ability to move forward in his life, and support his family. 

Marquis is not alone.

Florida remains among the states that uphold these adages of eras past. Presently, with the help of Marquis and organizations like the FRRC and the Florida Policy Institute, people will continue to rise and pave the way for positive change in the lives of over 1.4 million men and women in Florida with past felony convictions.

 

Selected by Elisa

“I wanted to go to be a registered nurse but because of my charge, I couldn’t participate in the program.”
– Marquis, Dirt Master LLC