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From inmate to advocate: How incarceration motivated six individuals to try changing the system

Leaving incarceration is a unique experience that forever changes the lives of those that go through it. Meet six former inmates from across north Central Florida who have become advocates for better reentry programs.

I went to my first reentry conference on assignment for WUFT News during spring 2023.

I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I had no idea what the term “reentry” even meant before then. Reentry is the transition from jail or prison back to the community.

This complex process involves several steps, including finding a job and housing, paying for probation and just making the right choices each and every day. The financial, physical and emotional obstacles that come with reentry make those choices even more complicated. So much so that 30 percent of people returning to prison do so within three years of their release.

At a conference held at the Alachua County Library District headquarters in Gainesville, I heard several speakers talk about their experiences and hardships – and learned about the many obstacles previously incarcerated people endure while on probation.

The conference included a simulation presentation in which attendees were given cards with tasks and requirements to stay out of prison. Participants visited several “stations” for help in finding jobs and housing, but there were also “chance choices,” and for the desperate a table where they could pick a random card potentially carrying harsh consequences.

I attended another reentry conference as a follow-up, and it was there I discovered a bigger story. Many of the people leading the activities, organizations and meetings were previously incarcerated themselves. After their experience in jail or prison, they had become advocates for an easier reentry experience – one in which it’s not as hard to avoid going behind bars again.

In addition to sharing these advocate’s stories, this reentry simulation project also aims to help the public better understand why it can be so hard to stay free of incarceration and start anew.

Click the image below to explore an interactive showing what it's like to reenter society after being incarcerated.


Disclaimer: Some content may be triggering for those who were formerly incarcerated and have lived experience. Please proceed with caution.

Here are six area residents who after serving time in prison are leading or affiliated with organizations working to make it easier to start new after life behind bars.


Donna Lord, volunteer and workshop leader, Alternatives to Violence, an advocacy group supporting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking: “You got to be independent, but independence doesn’t always mean that you have to stand alone.”

Kevin Scott, program director, Just Income, a grassroots peer support system: “You’re already not on a level playing field. You come out in a hole, there are many, many hurdles, and then there’s that whole other extra set of debts. So you have less opportunities for stability and an extraordinary amount of expectations.”

Leigh Scott, community engagement director, GRACE Marketplace, an organization pushing to end homelessness: “If you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep, and where you’re going to get fed, and all that kind of stuff, then everything becomes that much more magnified. So I think housing is the most important thing, because if we don’t get people in a safe environment, we’re just setting them up to fail again. ”

Marianne VanDongen, motivational speaker: “I don’t want to be remembered for the lady who killed her husband. I want to be remembered as the lady who gave back some of what she learned – and some of what she had in her heart.”

Emily Westerholm, founder, Released, an organization serving people who have been incarcerated: “I know the system’s really broken, and if I can give people just a little bit of hope that’s genuine and reduce stigma – and let them know that they’re seen and that someone cares – then it’s worth it for me.”

Murray Wilson, free-income recipient, Just Income: “I don’t want to keep doing this and keep letting this be a revolving door for my life, in and out of trouble.”

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