Edwin Bear, correspondent
Originally published 01:27 p.m., April 6, 2009
Updated 04:05 p.m., April 6, 2009
INDIANTOWN — Convicted felon Michael Clark is tired of wasting his life sitting behind bars.
He’s scheduled to be released from the Martin Correctional Institution on April 21 and he wants to see his daughter get married in May.
“My daughter told me please don’t get in trouble because I want you to give me away at the wedding,” Clark said.
That’s why Clark, 38, is preparing for his release date by taking a mandatory class about life after prison.
Martin Correctional Institution’s Correctional Sentence Specialist Jane VanTassel, a 16-year veteran of her profession, teaches each student enrolled to be presentable in public and respectful to others. Since February 2008, she has taught the basic tools necessary for a life outside prison.
“The overall goal is to keep the inmates from coming back,” VanTassel said. “We don’t need them. We want them to go out there and get a life.”
It costs $1.4 million to run the transition classes in facilities throughout the state, funded by the Florida State Legislature, said Joellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
Inmates with 180 days or less from their projected release date are eligible. Every state prison in Florida is required to offer the class and each prisoner must complete 100 hours before they can be released, VanTassel said.
There are 40,000 inmates scheduled to be released this year. If the program is not in place at the facility where they’re locked up, they will be transferred to a facility that has it, Rackleff said.
Clark, who plans to move in with his mother in Miami-Dade County upon his release, said he has been in and out of prison since he was tried as an adult and convicted at the age of 15 for stabbing a friend who slapped him during an argument. He’s currently serving a 14-year sentence for burglary assault and battery with a deadly weapon.
Once some inmates are released, adjusting to life after prison and maintaining their freedom is not easy. Motivating inmates to set goals and stay out of prison is VanTassel’s objective.
Thomas Bell, 52, is scheduled for release July 22 and already has a job lined up. He said he was a contractor in Orlando before being sentenced to one year and one day for cocaine possession.
Even with his future more secure than most prisoners, who usually do not have a job ready after their release, he still thinks the program will help him adjust to life outside prison.
“It’s been very good,” he said. “Nobody wants to go out there blinded. Most people that go out blinded, they’re coming back.”
Edwin Bear is a Florida Atlantic University student working as a correspondent for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers as part of a senior-level journalism course.