Florida guaranteed income program will keep ex-prisoners afloat

During his three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, Kevin Scott says prison staff served him and his fellow inmates rotten food and kept them malnourished. They repeatedly stomped on a photo of his daughter. “The messaging is: You don’t matter,” he says. “You’re insignificant. It’s brutal.”

But the Gainesville, Florida, resident says the trauma far from ended as he walked out of prison six years ago.

Aside from any emotional damage they may be contending with, newly released prisoners also face burdensome legal costs as they struggle to find employment and housing. In response, a coalition in Alachua County, Florida, just launched a privately funded guaranteed income pilot specifically for formerly incarcerated people, designed and administered by former prisoners. The coalition aims to gather data during the year-long program and raise public awareness about the grim reality of reentering society without help.

From November 10 through December 1, Alachua County residents recently put on felony probation or released from a Florida state prison, county jail, or federal prison will be able to apply to be one of the randomly selected 115 people to receive $1,000 in January 2022, followed by $600 per month thereafter for a full year. A second round of applications will also begin in January.

Community Spring, a nonprofit whose mission is to spur economic mobility and dismantle structural poverty, is managing the pilot. Previously, a group of fellows on the team, all of whom had had experience with the criminal justice system—including the formerly incarcerated Scott—had been hired to help community members with reentry support, but when COVID-19 hit, the team pivoted to economic relief, sending one-time $300 checks to about 100 families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefit list. It wasn’t much, Scott says, but “during that time when toilet paper was worth $1,000, it seemed like it meant a whole lot.”

By coincidence, at the same time Gainesville’s mayor, Lauren Poe, had signed on to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a coalition of 60 U.S. mayors, and growing, to implement guaranteed income pilots in their own cities. Given Community Spring’s proven competency in implementing a cash-transfer program, Poe asked the organization to formulate a distribution system. Community Spring pushed for the pilot to specifically target the formerly incarcerated, a particularly vulnerable population—especially in Florida, where 795 people per 100,000 are imprisoned.

Life after prison is often slangily referred to as “living under the axe,” says Scott, who’s now the manager of the pilot, called Just Income GNV. Traumatic stress aside, former inmates struggle to find housing and jobs; the homelessness rate is 10 times that of the general public, and 27% are unemployed, with many others forced to settle for low-paying jobs. All the while, they’re often responsible for the costs of court and probation fees, mandatory classes, ankle monitors, and restitution.

They’re forced into doing the “morbid math,” Scott says, of balancing the price of living with the risk of being sent back to prison if they can’t produce money for legal fees. “I’m a white guy, very much born on third base,” Scott says, “and I barely made it.”

At the same time, the general public is largely unaware of these toils, Scott says, many believing that prisoners simply reenter life on a level footing, and that “any failure is further reflection of their individual lacking in some way.” He says they’re expecting backlash from some people who think the cash transfers are undeserved, so it’s key that the pilot is completely privately funded by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and impact investors Spring Point, and not by taxpayer dollars.

But he hopes the pilot will help change those attitudes in the long run, especially with some proper data. Alongside the 115 recipients, a second group of randomly selected individuals they’re calling the “Allies,” essentially a control group, will serve as a comparison to those receiving the money, which should lead to some fact-based conclusions about the relationship between income and recidivism. After all, 20% percent of people who return to prison do so because of failure to pay court-required fees.

“There’s been no crime committed, other than the crime of the wrong bank account,” Scott says. “You’re just too poor to be free.”

Correction: We’ve updated this article to reflect that Smith was not personally beaten by prison guards.