Inclusive Cities implores citizens to question criminal justice system


What programs are being implemented to help rehabilitate inmates back into society after they get out of jail or prison? What can we do reimplement a judge’s power in sentencing? Those were the real questions asked at the Inclusive Cities interactive session festival on November 16th, 2017. Inclusive Cities was one session of many included in Et Cultura.

Et Cultura is a festival dedicated to sharing community culture and social issues through interactive sessions, film and music. The festival is supposed to display the culture of the city and inspire citizens to collaborate and learn.

Et Cultura was an eye opener for the community of St. Petersburg. It featured an abundance of interactive sessions covering many different topics. The Inclusive Cities interactive session focused on questioning the court system and the effectiveness of programs for inmates.

Moderator Simone Marstiller, an attorney and former appellate court judge, said she had three goals for the session. She wanted to teach attendees about criminal justice reform, expose the community to local programs, and give the community a chance to “get involved in the effort.”

The interactive panel consisted of Marstiller, Founder of The Red Tent Barbara Rhode, Executive Director of the Pinellas Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition Michael Jalazo, Executive Director for Florida Council of Churches Rev. Russell Meyer, and social justice advocate Weldon Angelos. All agreed that the current criminal justice system seemed to be focused on punishment as opposed to rehabilitation or reform.

The U.S. makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population but has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. Photo courtesy of Grace Stocksdale/Connect.

Angelos experienced this first hand when he was sentenced to 55 years in prison as a first time offender for selling $1,000 worth of marijuana. He was released after 13 years. The judge, because of sentencing guidelines, had little say in the outcome. Weldon was eventually pardoned by former President Barack Obama.

The panel spoke about how Angelos’ story is not uncommon as many Americans endure lengthy sentences for small or non-violent offenses.

Rhode also spoke about Red Tent, a local program available for women in jail. Rhode, a licensed therapist, visits inmates and teaches classes she created to help women in jail who are “depressed and want to reconnect with their children.” Rhode also offers life-skill training to aid inmates in their job searches after prison. She said most of the women she meets have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and that her classes help them adjust to life after prison.

On the topic of how to help inmates before their release, the panel agreed on a few specific techniques. They want to work on prisoner education, specifically reading skills and vocational training, and they want to increase funding for mental health programs because Florida receives, as a state, very little funding, according to the panel.

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All photos courtesy of Grace Stockdale/Connect.


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