The long road back: Florida Institutional Legal Services providing help to those that most people forget
Prior to coming to law school, the criminal justice system was a very simple concept to me. If a person committed a crime, that person should be held responsible. Once people repaid their debt to society through some penalty, they would earn the right to return to society and start again. However, it was not until I walked the long halls of prisons in Starke, Lake City, and Cocoa, Fla., that I got a little glimpse of how difficult the “starting again” really is.
I gained access to these prisons through The Florida Bar Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship. This past year I worked at Florida Institutional Legal Services doing work on Inmate Reentry Programs and Prisoner Rights issues. Florida Institutional Legal Services, Inc. (FILS) is a nonprofit law office that provides free legal assistance to indigent people incarcerated in Florida.
While working at FILS, I researched issues ranging from the physical abuse of prisoners to the inhumane treatment of the mentally and physically ill. However, my most interesting work was participating in FILS Inmate Re-entry Program. Through the aid of attorneys and paralegals, FILS provides legal and administrative help to inmates teaching them the process to survive once they are released from incarceration.
The re-entry assistance is quite comprehensive. FILS provides inmates that request help, with packets that outline the process to receive food assistance, social security, veteran’s aid and other areas of aid. FILS also provides in-person advice and reentry programs for inmates at institutions. FILS also provides representation to selected inmates in Social Security hearings.
I went to several institutions to speak to inmates. I visited mostly with inmates that had been institutionalized for the majority of their adult lives. When talking to these inmates about returning to society most of them were scared. They were scared of being homeless. They were scared of not being able to survive. They were scared of committing crimes again. Their fear was rational. They were returning to an environment where they were most likely going to be homeless. Not to mention, they were returning to the worst economic situation since the Great Depression in a community that was scared of them.
In reality, these men will never be able to “start again,” not in the sense that they will be able to start from where they were prior to when they were incarcerated. But for these men and men like them, Florida Institutional Legal Services provides a helping hand to those that most people would rather never help. I am thankful for the attorneys and staff at Florida Institutional Legal Services. They provide invaluable service for so many.
Vanessa Goodwin is a 2010-11 Public Interest Law Fellow. The Public Interest Law Fellowship Program is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation to promote public interest law, and offered at the Levin College of Law by the Center for Governmental Responsibility.