Maya Washburn / Assistant News Director

Regina Shearn, a retired FIU criminal justice and psychology professor, founded the Regina B. Shearn Corrections Transition Program, a program which has helped over 500 inmates with the support of her students find their way back into society.

The CTP works with inmates who were sentenced prior to 1995. In that year, the chance of parole was eliminated for offenders convicted of capital felonies and given life sentences, removing the chance of release before the end of their term, according to the Florida Legislature.

Shearn said that over the past 25 years since the program started, she saw only one man recommit a serious crime and few had technical violations with substance abuse after their release.

“It’s difficult for an addict to make it as a success out here, but [we’ve had] very good success with that. I just have to thank God for it,” said Shearn. “I believe that God has a great deal to do with it.”

Shearn emphasized what motivated her to work with inmates.

“I’ve always had that push towards helping people,” she said. “The only way that I could do it is with what I’ve been trained and educated for, and that is in the counseling field, and the fact that other people had enough confidence in me to ask me to do it.”

Regina Shearn (center) alongside CTP board member Chris Wolfe (left) and benefactor Fred Rebozo (right). Photo courtesy of Chris Wolfe.

Shearn formed the CTP in 1996 when a prison warden asked her to counsel some men who were serving life sentences, but would soon be eligible for parole.

“I was hesitant to do it, but I had an interview with one of the men and he [said] that he would get out and he wouldn’t know where to go and what to do because he hadn’t been out for such a long time, and family members weren’t there anymore,” said Shearn. “That convinced me.”

Shearn noted the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which determines parole guidelines for inmates, will now only allow parole for an inmate if they complete their program of courses, workshops and preparation for release. CTP also attempts to lower the rate of convicted criminals reoffending after release from prison in Florida, said Shearn.

Chris Wolfe is a board member of the program and founder of the Voices of Time Gavel Club, a service that trains inmates on public speaking skills he created as a part of CTP.

Wolfe explained why CTP is effective.

“Dr. Shearn has created a structure in the corrections transition program with levels of leadership and accountability so that everybody’s accountable to each other,” said Wolfe. “The men who get out know they better not mess up, because if they do, they’re making it that much harder for the next person to get paroled.”

Chris Wolfe and former inmates at a halfway house in Tampa, Florida. Photo courtesy of Chris Wolfe.

The program highlights the importance of giving back and sharing their success stories.

Wolfe referred to his podcast, Men Going Home with Chris Wolfe, where the men speak about their crimes, life in prison and their transition experience. He hopes to increase public awareness and support of the former inmates’ public speaking training.

After being released, the men are encouraged to return to the prison to visit the men inside.

“These men now look and say, ‘Hey, you were just a man dressed in blue. And here you are with a suit and tie, all dressed up.’ They can tell them what problems they have run into while they’re out here so [the inmates] can start preparing,” said Shearn.

FIU students from her Corrections Transition psychology course helped by leading workshops on self-esteem, social skills and job interviews.

“It’s the idea of getting the men accustomed to meeting community people… so it’s nice that they love it. [They said,] ‘I never thought I would be sitting next to a university student,’” said Shearn. “[The inmates] call themselves FIU students.”

She said the program follows a semester course system with about 70 course offerings that are either taught by volunteers or the men themselves.

“[The men] can take five courses every semester. Some are mandatory, [such as] parole planning, [where FIU] students help them decide what they’re capable of doing when they get out,” said Shearn. “The men are very open with the students and the students’ compassion really shows.”

After being paroled, the men go to a halfway house, which is a transition home to reintegrate people back into society, for a year to adapt to a less structured environment than prison.

Wolfe said the strict structure in prison causes the men to become institutionalized over time.

“You’ve got to kind of undo all those things that they learned in prison,” said Wolfe. “Think about that. For 30 years, you’re told what to do, when to go to sleep, when to get up, when to stand, when to sit, when to eat, when to walk, when to talk, when to not talk and when to stand in line to be counted five, six times a day.”

Shearn explained that the men must be “de-prisonized” after their release to successfully transition back into society.

“You have an entirely different set of survival skills in prison,” said Shearn. “So when [the inmates] come out, they have to all of a sudden become re-socialized. That’s what I call de-prisonized. That’s our job.”

Wolfe underscored the program’s impact on the health and safety of society.

“If we can help these guys transition successfully, we’re helping keep the streets safe,” said Wolfe. “[If] they become wage-earning, tax-paying citizens, they’re not going to go back to crime as a source of making money.”