Program Offers Job Training, Hope to Women in Florida's Notorious Female Prisons

Anchelin Gonzalez was just 17 when she left the Bronx and moved to Palm Beach to give birth to her son back in 2005. She was "leading a fast and dangerous life" in New York, she says, but relocated to live with her uncle in a sunnier side of the country. It didn't change anything — six months later, Gonzalez was arrested for trying to rob a store with a firearm. She was sentenced to 11 years hard time in the Homestead Correctional Institution.

But Gonzalez didn't spend those 11 years stewing. On Friday, she was one of ten beaming prisoners in matching caps and gowns who marched to "Pomp and Circumstance" inside the South Florida prison's visitation room. With only five months left before she can reunite with her now 11-year-old son, Gonzalez is exiting Homestead Correctional with a GED, a business plan, and a certificate of graduation. 

"You have to believe you can change," says Gonzalez, who dreams of eventually opening a Puerto Rican food truck called "Boricua Flavor." "If you don't have that, what do you have?"

Gonzalez is one of the success stories, organizers say, of a nonprofit called LEAP for Ladies, which works to empower women in prison to make positive life changes through a multidisciplinary approach including entrepreneurship training, education, and mentorship. In a state with one of the worst female prison systems in America — beset by sexual abuse scandals and corruption — they said the program offers hope for life after incarceration.

"We want to have LEAP running in every prison in the state of Florida," says Gemma Rodriguez, co-founder of LEAP. "It's hard to get jobs and housing when you're coming out."

The program has been partnering with Barry University since 2009 to offer a business class to a select group of women chosen throughout all of the Florida women's prisons. To be eligible to participate in LEAP, women must have a maximum of one year left on their sentence and cannot have committed a sexual offense. In conjunction with self-betterment classes lead by facilitator Whitney Johnson, the goal of the program is to eradicate recidivism and provide opportunities for the women upon release. 

"I've been able to really learn about myself through LEAP," Gonzalez says.

Many of the women in Homestead transferred there from Lowell Correctional Facility in Ocala. Housing more than 2,700 female inmates, Lowell is the largest women's prison in the country and is notorious for brutal problems. Rebecca Brown remembers the day she was transferred from Lowell. It was July 7, 2015, and she was more than ready for the change.

"Lowell is a maximum security facility, and it's violent. Homestead is much smaller, beautiful, and there are ponds and foliage," says Brown, who will be released in May. "I'm most excited about swimming in the ocean."

Brown, who was a victim and aggressor of domestic violence, created a business plan to raise awareness about the issue. "Trac_Z" will sell bands that link to an online resource of support for domestic violence victims. One dollar from each band will go toward battered women's organizations. It's a business model that is "very dear" to Brown's heart. Other business ideas range from a wellness center to a hotdog stand, each one imbued with the woman's passion, interests, and business savvy. 

Many women won't know where they are living until two weeks before being released. Current co-executive directors Carolyn Gilbert Epstein and Mahlia Lindquist, who started out as volunteer mentors with the program, say their long-term goals include opening up a halfway house for the women to continue supporting each other as they transition out of prison. But they need funding.

In the meantime, LEAP will continue supporting Florida's women as much as it can. Guest speaker Tracy Mourning advised, "Forgive yourselves. But don't look back, all you see are your tracks. Keep your nose clean," and most important, "Leave those no good men alone."