Darby Moore and Dana Pederson | email@example.com
In the fall of 1983, a 18-year-old high school dropout accompanied her boyfriend and friends on a robbery in Coney Island, New York. Diana Ortiz did not pull the trigger or kill the homeowner that evening, but was still sentenced to a minimum of 17 years in state prison.
She served more than 22 years.
Today, Ortiz, 45, is the assistant director for Exodus Transitional Community, an inmate re-entry housing facility in New York.
“I think that it helps in my work the fact that I know exactly how these people feel,” Ortiz said. “Like almost any other woman doing time, I was dating someone who was doing drugs and I was doing drugs, too. I didn’t even have to pull the trigger to get that time.”
Exodus provides services to ex-inmates and helps them reintegrate into their communities.
Former inmate Julio Medina founded Exodus in 1999. The organization addresses issues facing ex-prisoners, including a lack of job opportunities, housing shortages and undiagnosed substance abuse and mental health problems.
Ortiz supervises daily operations, works to keep incarcerated mothers in contact with their children, and aids formerly incarcerated women with mental health troubles.
“We’re finding more and more that the most difficult part is connecting with family members and finding a place to live,” he said. “The top worries are employment, finding a place to live, and just finding out how to navigate the world that has changed so much since you’ve been inside.”
Ortiz was among those who attended Operation Reform, held Nov. 18 and 19 in Jacksonville, Florida. The event was aimed at discussing criminal justice reform and looking for ways to find jobs for ex-inmates and prevent them from going back to jail.
While at Operation Reform, Ortiz met University of California at Berkeley professor Katie Galloway, who is directing a documentary called The Return.
Galloway is a documentary filmmaker, investigative reporter and co-founder of Loteria Films. Her work focuses on social injustice and criminal justice mishandlings throughout the United States. The Return tracks Proposition 36, which shortened the sentences of thousands of nonviolent offenders who had gotten life in prison under California’s Three Strikes Law.
“I began researching this topic after being assigned a story on Pelican Bay prisoners more than 20 years ago,” Galloway said. “Reentry has been the focus of my current film because we are at a historic moment where more people are being released and ‘success’ is critical to support more mass incarceration reform.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of all state prisoners will eventually be released from prison.
“Some of the greatest challenges for a former inmate are the changes in technology, an overhaul of behavior required to live outside, as well as PTSD and other mental health issues,” Galloway said. “Often these inmates are banned from housing, school loans, jobs, voting, and essentially, citizenship.”
Kathleen Quillian, a Flagler College graduate, has been assisting Galloway with The Return. She has helped to edit video and transcribe interviews. She has also produced media toolkits and has attended screenings of the film with other documentary filmmakers.
Quillian said she was drawn to the film company for its “strong examples of powerful female filmmakers making a difference in the world through the power of film.”
“I emailed Loteria Films begging to work with them,” she said.
During her final year at Flagler College, Quillian said she produced a senior documentary thesis on mass incarceration in the U.S. and the effects it has on families who have incarcerated family members.
“My grandfather has been incarcerated in federal prison for the last 10 years,” she said. “I profiled how the system is flawed when it comes to nonviolent crimes.”
Galloway said she hopes The Return Project will help spread awareness of the issues ex-inmates face.
According to the project’s website, “The Return weaves together a handful of close-to-the-bone narratives of characters on the front lines of this unprecedented shift: prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law and reentry providers negotiating unfathomable transitions.”
Ortiz recognizes that she had an easier transition into civilian life than most former inmates. While in prison, she earned a master’s degree in English and began preparing for her return to the outside world.
“I was able to meet someone . . . doing work for Housing for Solutions,” Ortiz said. “It’s an organization that provides housing for only women and children after they are released, and the solutions are the services provided to the inmates, like finding those individuals employment or providing them with programs if they need those like substance abuse programs.”
The Housing for Solutions employee had gone to the prison to do a demonstration and Ortiz asked her for a job post-sentence. At first, the woman denied the request, but Ortiz persisted and was offered an internship after her release from prison.
“That was a really good job,” Ortiz said. “But the work that I always wanted to do is the work that I’m doing now with Exodus. Now I’m able to help men and women who aren’t getting the help that they really need.”
As of Dec. 31, 2014, there were 100,873 inmates being housed in Florida’s 56 state prisons. At the same time, there were 142,159 supervised active offenders in the care of more than 150 probation offices throughout the state.
Florida endorses the Transition from Prison to Community Initiative, or TPCI. The National Institute of Corrections created the TPCI in 2001. It represents the best thinking on how to manage the transition and reentry of former inmates.
The TPCI outlines three steps for a successful transition: getting ready, going home and staying home.
The third step is the toughest. One quarter of Florida inmates go back to jail within the first three years of their release.
The TPCI recommends that six months prior to release, inmates should plan for housing and continuity of care for medical, mental or substance abuse issues. They should also plan for employment and family reunification.
Societal views of inmates can make reentry difficult, Galloway said.
“As a society, we believe that the formerly incarcerated are bad people. We think, once a prisoner, always a criminal,” she said.
“When considering hiring an ex-inmate, there is fear and apprehension from the employer,” she said. “They don’t want to be the next victim. But what they don’t understand is the inmate. They don’t want to go back and the only way is to be able to stop from going back is to find a way to live out here.”
Finding housing can also be difficult, Ortiz said.
“Most people in someone’s family will promise that they can come home and promise that they can support them, but they don’t fully understand what it feels like to be released or just how much work helping these people can be,” she said. “They don’t know what it feels like and the amount of anxiety that you feel about finding a job and keeping a job and about reconnecting with your family again.”
The TPCI suggests that inmates receive continuity of care and support after their release, but that often does not happen, said Galloway, who has researched the issue of reentry in California, Florida and Texas.
“Now, there is more openness to reentry in terms of pardons or legal change, but in terms of what it actually is for the hundreds of thousands getting out each year, it still seems to be more of a catch-all or buzz word that doesn’t totally make reentry possible for those in need,” she said.
Ortiz said that even in best of situations, an inmate’s past can make it difficult to rejoin his community.
“People think that when you find a job, that that’s the end of it all,” she said. “That’s not the way things work though unfortunately when you consider issues like parole meetings and transportation to that job.”
All many ex-inmates want, Ortiz said, is a second chance.
“I would want someone to know that we feel just as bad about what we did,” she said. “That we do want to be seen as people who are just as hard-working and compassionate and caring as everyone else. We know that we did something wrong. We’ve gone to prison and we’ve made that change and we’re ready to live our life.”