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Pinellas County
Fresh Start helps county's parolees
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Photo by ALEXANDRA LUNDAHL
Nick Surprenant, left, has been mentored by Jim Rohrer, right, through the Fresh Start program to help Surprenant successfully complete his probation.
CLEARWATER - Nick Surprenant was a senior airman firefighter in the Air Force, serving from 2001 to 2004. He served in Pakistan for nine months. He earned an achievement medal for saving some Special Forces pararescue troops who got shot in a training mission. But after he left the military and returned home to Florida, his life began to unravel.

Florida does not accept nationally registered firefighters, so in order to work in what he was trained to do, Surprenant would have had to go to school all over again.

“I remember my first holidays home, I couldn’t find a job,” Surprenant said. “I even went out into all the malls and tried to get a temporary job in the mall or something, but I couldn’t find anything. And like here I am, I was a firefighter for four years. Got a medal for saving some special forces guys in battle, but I can’t get a job.”

That discouragement led him to hang out with the wrong crowd and start getting into trouble. He drank too much. He got caught up in bad decisions – both his own and his friends’ – and he went from no record; to two misdemeanor charges; to three days in jail, a list of charges, a felony on his record and five years of probation.

That woke him up.

Through the help of the Fresh Start mentoring program, Surprenant has successfully completed many of the requirements of probation. Now he has to rebuild his image of himself and start reclaiming his life. Fresh Start is helping with that, too.

Fresh Start is a faith-based mentoring program for people on probation from the Pinellas County Jail. Herb Schluderberg, founder and executive director of the program, is a chaplain in the Pinellas County Jails and he saw what a need there is for programs for people leaving jail. Therefore, he started Fresh Start in Clearwater in September 2009, and it has since grown throughout the county. There are main offices in Clearwater, Largo, Tarpon Springs, and two in St. Petersburg, he said. However, the 75 trained volunteer mentors meet their parolees throughout the county, wherever is the most convenient for both parties.

“We don’t give them food, clothing, money or a place to stay,” Schluderberg said. “We help them develop a plan for probation. They have to do it on their own. But we help them make a plan, and we meet with them weekly.”

About 170 parolees have started the program, and about 50 have successfully graduated. Currently about 40 people are being mentored, said Schluderberg of Palm Harbor. Local program managers go into the five offices each week and interview the people probation officers recommend for the program. Parolees and mentors are matched up based on things such as personalities, background and any common ground that could help make a better match. The program does not take sexual predators or violent offenders, he said. After a match is made, the mentor and mentee meet about once every week or two at a convenient location – a coffee shop or restaurant, for instance – and talk for about an hour. Even though it is a faith-based program, people of any faith are welcome, and it does not push religion, Schluderberg said.

“(Mentors) don’t usually ask questions of faith – we just mentor them through the probation,” Schluderberg said. “There are some people who maybe they were brought up Christian but now they have no interest. So unless you’re invited in, we just help them through probation and their plan and maybe help them look for jobs, get their GED, a way to pay their costs, things like that. That’s what we focus on. But a lot of these folks have a lot going on in their lives, so that’s how these other (faith-related) things come up.”

There are many great programs for inmates in the Pinellas County Jail, Schluderberg said, but re-entry into the community can be full of challenges.

“Obviously nowadays, jobs are a huge thing,” Schluderberg said. “…We try to help encourage them, talk to them about where they can go, put out feelers and get some kind of plan. Because you can imagine what it’s like to go to an employer and tell them you’re on probation. We try not to enable them, so we try not to provide the resource, but we do have a list of places they can go and try to help them do the work themselves.”

Another common problem for people on probation is many of them do not have access for a car. This is why mentors usually try to meet the probationers at places convenient for them. But it also can make it especially difficult for them to find work because they have to be able to walk, ride a bike or take public transportation to the job, and the job must not require access to a car or valid driver’s license.

For Surprenant, 30, of Largo, part of his punishment is that his license was taken away, said his mentor, Jim Rohrer of Seminole. That makes it harder to get a job that could pay more that could help pay his court fees, Rohrer said.

“It’s hard because with the charge that he got, they took his license away and so now he doesn’t have any transportation,” Rohrer said. “And then you have to find a job that will fit in those parameters so you have to take a job that really doesn’t pay a lot and you still have to maintain a residence and pay for cost of living and your probation, and it’s difficult.”

Surprenant said it is hard for him to keep his apartment because of all of the fees he has to pay. He could have taken a plea deal and maybe end up with a better deal, but he wanted to take his charges to trial.

“I could have plead out before the trial, but I wanted to fight for my life,” Surprenant said. “I didn’t want to accept the charge that I didn’t believe I committed. So I took it to trial and lost. They sent me to drug and alcohol classes for 16 weeks. I completed those. They gave me community service, which I completed with the Taking it to the Streets Program. … The only thing I have left to do is pay all my fines, which is the hardest part. Working things off and going to and doing things are the easy part. But to pay your own rent by yourself and to be able to come up with the extra money to give to the courthouse is rough.”

The monetary costs are the hardest for Surprenant right now, on top of his regular bills. There are fines and court costs, and each month there are probation fees.

“It takes extra money to keep your fines just at what they were,” Surprenant said. “You pay for these probation fees and then you have nothing left to put towards the fines. And then if you pay something towards the fines but don’t pay your probation fees, they violate you and then you have to start the process over again. It’s just hard to get out.”

Generally, the cost of supervision is for the duration of the probation, Rohrer said. If a probationer has completed all the elements of his or her parole and has paid all the total fees within half of the time of the set parole, he or she can sometimes be eligible for early termination of the probation.

Surprenant is ready to change his life and move on, but it can be hard to stay ahead and to not be too hard on himself. That has been one of the biggest challenges since he got in trouble.

“It’s just been trying to get my self-confidence back up enough to see past where I was,” Surprenant said. “And to have a vision of an opportunity ahead. Trying to get back into the good graces of my own family. … I’m my own worst critic. I beat myself down. In my own mind, I let something like this, to myself, discredit all the good stuff I’ve done before. That’s the hardest part.”

Fresh Start has helped him work to overcome this mindset. Things look better than they did before. He feels proud that he has taken significant steps toward8 getting off of probation. Fresh Start has given him hope instead of only seeing gloom. It has also helped him get to a much better place than he was before he got arrested.

“It’s definitely better now than it was then, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble,” Surprenant said. “I don’t even know how to explain how I was then. Just basically doing nothing important. Being a firefighter, I lost my feeling of purpose (when I couldn’t do it anymore,) so basically I felt lost and nothing mattered.”

Surprenant started out on probation in Clearwater, but after he violated parole, he was sent to Largo. However, his Clearwater parole officer had told him about Fresh Start and added into things he needed to do. After asking a lot of questions, Surprenant finally found a Largo officer who was familiar with the program and helped him get involved. He believes it has helped keep him on track and from not violating his parole again.

Rohrer said it is easy for people to get into situations where they violate it.

“There’s a lot of stuff that people don’t realize beforehand,” Rohrer said. “Like if your normal activity is going to a club, there’s a lot of situations you can find yourself in there. You can find yourself in a situation where you’re driving intoxicated. Violation and a new charge you get into a confrontation with another individual, and now you have a battery charge. And sometimes it’s even defending yourself, but you can get arrested and that’s a violation. You may get exonerated later, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve violated and you’ve gotten arrested and are in jail. So it’s almost to the point where you have to think of everything you do to make sure that you don’t put yourself in a future situation that could be bad.”

Surprenant added that he has a 10 p.m. curfew each night where he has to be back in his apartment by that time.

“And if I’m sleeping and the officer comes by to check if I’m there and if they knock on the door and I don’t answer because I’m sleeping, they can violate me,” Surprenant said. “Even if I’m home. Just because I don’t answer the door or am in the shower or something and don’t hear. It’s that simple. And then you have to try to explain yourself in court. Lately I’ve been staying up until 10:30, 11 just to make sure. I’ll sit there watching TV with my front door open and screen door shut.”

The mentors in Fresh Start can help guide probationers through this sometimes-tricky process and help them learn to make better choices. Rohrer sometimes has a special connection with his mentees because he has been in their positions before. There was a time in his life when he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and got involved in some criminal activity.

“I was on probation myself, so I know what to do and what not to do,” Rohrer said. “I did a lot of the ‘what not to do’s’” and found myself in a lot more trouble. So I can use that experience to say, ‘Hey, these are pitfalls that could get you violation your probation.’”

Rohrer and his wife, Kerri, got involved as mentors through their church, and he feels good about giving back to the community.

“(I’m) helping somebody that might be teeter-tottering on the decision that might lead him to more trouble,” Rohrer said. “If I can be the catalyst that pushes him in the right direction, that feels good.”

Fresh Start mentors also try to help probationers not to “dig a hole” when they do slip up, Schluderberg said. It isn’t always easy to completely change their life all at once, and sometimes they make a mistake. But the mentors urge them to not panic and to talk to their probation officer. Sometimes, if they are sincere about wanting to change for the better and have been making progress, it might not be an automatic violation, Schluderberg said. But if they give up right there and figure they may as well go back to their life before because it’s too late, then that just is a recipe for big consequences, he said.

One thing Rohrer has learned from his own experience that he tries to teach his mentees, is that often people have to change their usual people, places and things.

“They say bad company corrupts good character, so if you substitute those that have bad character with those that have good character, that helps,” Rohrer said. “I went through a period where I didn’t have anyone because everybody I knew was in the same stuff that I was in. … I would get patted on the back for the more (bad things) I did, not for trying to back away. When I backed away from it, they were like, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ So I just had to let everything go. But now I have a whole new group of individuals who are behind me – there for my good, not for what they can get out of me.”

The Fresh Start program generally lasts for about six months, and then they assess where the probationer is. If they have been making steady progress and the mentor and parolee feels he or she is set and does not need to continue the mentoring process, then the probationer receives a certificate of graduation from the program. Sometimes they agree to continue for a few months to keep helping the person get on his or her feet. Of those who have successfully graduated from the program, none have been violated or returned to jail, Schluderberg said.

“That is one way we help the community,” Schluderberg said. “They get through probation and they’ve done things on their own, and it helps establish them as a citizen that works rather than one who is a tax expense to the community. We try to make them into tax payers by helping them get a structured, routine life where they can work and stay out of trouble.”

Nationally, the rate of recidivism is about 70 percent, Schluderberg said, but the Florida Department of Corrections has told him that they believe the Fresh Start program’s total recidivism rate – including those who do not graduate from the program – is about half of the national level.

There are on average 3,000 to 3,300 people in the Pinellas County Jail at any one time, Schluderberg said. Yet there are 9,000 probationers in the county. Though probation officers are supposed to work both as a law enforcement officer and a social worker, it is often hard to find the time to play the latter role. Fresh Start is trying to step up to fill that position. This is especially important given the string of budget cuts that have trimmed many programs that the jails had to help prisoners, he said.

Schluderberg has several goals for Fresh Start for the next year. He wants to grow the number of mentors to 100, they want to establish a job search program, they also want to start the program so the first month is actually working with the mentee while he or she is still in jail, to help ease the transition, he said.

Mentors can be from all walks of life, and though it usually is the most convenient to go through their church, anyone can attend the training sessions. Training happens in two sessions. The first one will introduce potential volunteers to what the program is all about and what they would be doing. They then receive the book, “Coaching 101,” and they are sent home to read it. A few weeks later, they come back for the second session, and then they get additional training on how to coach people. The next coaching session is set for Saturday, May 19. For details, contact Schluderberg at herbschlu@netzero.net.

Surprenant’s and Rohrer’s next goal is to get Surprenant early termination from probation. After that, Surprenant hopes he can get the felony expunged from his record, which is possible in certain circumstances in Florida. He wants to change his life and get his good name back. He has hopes and plans and goals. He misses firefighting, but fire departments do not hire felons.

“I hope to try to somehow get my record expunged and be able to either go back into firefighting or whatever else at that point that I can think would be a better road,” Surprenant said. “What I really want to do is – the biggest thing besides career for why I want my felony gone is so I can coach football. That’s what kept me out of trouble for the first 26 years of my life. So that would be where I want to give back.”
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