About


This is a longform multimedia journalism project by students in the Department of Communication at the University of North Florida.

 

 

Part 1: Introduction


By Wesley LeBlanc and Sarah Carter

By most people’s estimations, Florida’s prison system is broken – its facilities in poor shape, chronically understaffed and more violent than ever.

Not surprisingly, inmates emerging from the state’s correctional facilities have a 26 percent recidivism rate, which means that about one out of four people released from prison will be back behind bars within three years.



The inmates have filed complaints but usually those don’t get past the prison administration. The Miami Herald and other news outlets have written stories but Florida’s often turned a blind eye. Legislators have presented bills but they haven’t been passed.

Dozens of groups have attempted to propose reforms for the state’s prison system. Advocates range from legislators, journalists, humanitarians and everything in between.

More recently, Disability Rights Florida forced concessions from the Florida Department of Corrections to remedy how it provides care for the mentally ill inmates behind bars.

But never has a group composed entirely of former inmates proposed reforms – until now.



In March, a focus group of nine former inmates arrived with a list of recommendations for reform. The group met with student journalists from the University of North Florida following a conference held in Tallahassee organized by The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ).

Although many of the inmates who took part in the focus group finished their sentences years ago, their experiences are similar to those who’ve exited the system more recently. Like Moliere Dimanche Jr., who was released from prison one year ago.

Although he was not part of the focus group, the kinds of situations he faced during his nine years in prison for grand theft and possession of a short-barrel shotgun were echoed by focus group members.

In particular, Dimanche was a witness to the kinds of violence within prisons that marked Florida’s system in 2016, a year in which correctional officers reported using more force than ever before.

Raised in Orlando, he started his nine-year sentence in 2007 , a period that found him housed within 12 different state prisons.

Dimanche witnessed brutality in all 12 of these prisons but instead of ignoring it, he did something about it. He filed multiple prison grievances and called for investigations. Now that he’s out, he seeks to bring new laws to light that could prevent the things he witnessed from happening today.

“The officers knew their way around surveillance and used that to their advantage,” Dimanche said.

For example, officers took advantage of non-monitored spots within prisons to assault inmates. And if an officer did  see another officer stepping over the line, chances are the assault wouldn’t be reported as the officers covered for one another, Dimanche explained.

Then there were the smaller acts of torment.

“They would put dishwasher fluid in our food, but not before peeing all over our food,” said Dimanche, who now lives in Palatka while attending the Florida School of the Arts. “Sometimes, because the trays of food were covered, they would deliver empty trays to inmates for days on end.”

How could they?

All this can change though, according to Dr. Gary VanLandingham, a professor at the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University.

“We are in a better position for reform than ever before,” VanLandingham said. “We know what works.”

Florida is on its way to reform, but there is still work to be done.

Part 2: Prisons & Inmates


By Marielisa Martinez and Joslyn Simmons

Some 98,000 adults call a Florida prison their home in a state that incarcerates more men and women per 100,000 people than 42 other states in this country.

It’s a prison system that has seen its share of violence and corruption, University of North Florida criminology professor Dr. Michael Hallett said.  

It’s also a system that has seen its budget change very little over the past seven years.  The $2.3 billion DOC budget allocated by the state in 2015-16 is less than was the budget allocated in 2010-11.

This year’s budget is only a bit higher at $2.4 billion.  And although correctional officers got a raise this year, prisons are still understaffed.

“The FDOC is in massive crisis,” Hallett said.  “It is something you really can’t believe unless you experience it.”

Who’s in the prison system?  Here is the breakdown, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

  • Inmates range from as young as 15 to 95.  In Florida, teen-agers can be tried as adults and sentenced to adult prison as young as 14.
  • Some 93 percent of the inmates are men, compared to 7 percent of women in the prison system.
  • Of the total Florida prison population, 55 percent of inmates were convicted for violent offenses.
  • Drug-related crimes have been committed by 14.5 percent of inmates.
  • Some 55 percent of the inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses.

 


To accommodate the prison population, the Florida Department of Corrections divides itself into four regions that contain 145 correctional facilities throughout the state, including 15 set aside for women.

Seven of the prisons are run by private companies and under contract to the FDOC.  In addition,  private contractors provide mental and physical healthcare for all the state’s prisons.

Inmates are housed according to five custody levels that capture how much security an inmate needs. Criminal history and the inmate’s history of violent crime are some of the variables that affect a person’s custody level.



Custody levels go from the least restrictive, known as community, where inmates are allowed to work outside the facilities to the most restrictive level, known as maximum, which includes inmates housed on death row.

Florida State Prison is one of the most restrictive prisons. It houses prisoners from all five custody levels and it’s one of the few that offers maximum security.

At the other end of the security spectrum are places such as the state’s Work Release Centers.  They offer rehabilitating and educational services for inmates with two to three years of time left on their sentences who are classified with needing minimum security.

Some of the facilities were built in the early 1900s and used as work camps before being converted into modern day prisons. In most state-run institutions, facilities are bare-boned. There is no air conditioning, hot water is limited, plumbing can be a problem and many have roof problems.

“A lot of these prisons are very old and a lot of them are falling apart,” said Elle Piloseno, a research analyst for the Center of Smart Justice at Florida TaxWatch. “We just need to have liveable facilities.”

Although the DOC’s budget has increased minimally over the years, the state facilities need to address these repairs to ensure the inmates and staff and have everything  they need, Piloseno said. The public safety of the communities in which the prisons are located can also be impacted by a facility’s condition.

The end goal is to make sure inmates are properly cared for during their time inside the system.

And although repairs and reforms are needed, what isn’t needed is new prisons, Piloseno said,  adding that reforms should focus on prevention and rehabilitation, not retribution.

“We should reserve our prison beds and jail beds, which are extremely expensive, for people we’re afraid of and not mad at,” said Piloseno.

 

Part 3: Violence in the system


By Josh Hodges and Brittany Davey

Prisons have always been known for their violent potential, but in Florida, the flares of violence have been increasing.

That’s clear in a 2016 report on the FDOC by the Inspector General. It showed the overall prison population is going down, but the frequency in which correctional officers use force is going up, as are the number of inmate deaths.

According to that report, Florida’s prison population dropped 3 percent between 2010 and 2016. During the same six-year period, use-of-force incidents increased by 18 percent.

In addition, the state’s prisons experienced a series of major inmate disturbances last year. Even FDOC Secretary Julie Jones recognizes the volatility in the system.

“It will lead to a disaster at some point, no matter how hard we try not to make that happen,” Jones said during a press conference in March.

And it’s much worse in some institutions than others. A deeper analysis of the data shows that some major prisons are clear stand-outs when it comes to officer-induced force.

The worst is Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, where nearly 45 incidents occurred for every 100 inmates. Close behind is Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak with 41.5 incidents per 100 inmates.

Those figures don’t surprise Palatka’s Moliere Dimanche, who served  part of his sentence at the Suwannee facility and said violent incidents by correctional officers against inmates were everyday occurrences.

“The violence is enabled by officers and supervisors who hesitate to take action against officer violence,” Dimanche said. “The lack of oversight is the biggest problem.”

In particular, the former Suwannee inmate, who sued 16 prison officials over his own treatment, remembered the Suwanee officers’ treatment of a physically disabled inmate.

“Every day during count, he was told to do jumping jacks while wearing leg braces until he couldn’t do them anymore,” Dimanche remembered.

After falling to the ground when his legs gave out, the inmate was sprayed with a chemical agent that Dimanche said is one of the guard’s preferred forms of punishment.

The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who is a former sheriff, an attorney and a founding member of the Project on Accountable Justice, said one of the reasons for the prisons’ continuous rise in violence is the lack of experienced officers.

“Retirements are leaving the system in a state of collapse,” DeFoor said. “The system is tragically broken.”

When retirements are combined with high officer turnover and the state’s increased difficulty with hiring, it means prisons are often understaffed.

Currently, there are 2,500 positions unfilled within the FDOC.

It also means that the correctional officers who are on staff may be less experienced in dealing with conflict. In fact, the average officer today has only two to three years’ experience.

To make the situation more volatile, there are few incentives in place in the system to encourage officers to change their inappropriate behavior, DeFoor said.

And the violence detailed in the Inspector General’s 2016 report may only be the tip of the iceberg.

According to Paul Wright, the editor and founder of Prison Legal News and a former inmate himself, a large amount of the violence in the prison system goes unreported.

The correctional officers who are committing and witnessing violent acts are the same ones who hold the responsibility for reporting them, Wright said. And there is often an understanding within the culture that officers cover up for other officers.

“There is a type of gang culture built up among the staff,” Wright said. “It’s typically not the guards who were just hired that are committing the violent acts; it’s the ones who have been there for a while.”

Wright pointed to the kinds of rural spots where prisons tend to be located as another reason why the violence might go unreported.

“Generations of the same family are working at the same prison,” Wright said. “You’re not very likely to report your brother-in-law if you catch him doing something wrong.”

Wright said tolerance of abuse in prisons throughout the state is due to how upper management views the violence.

“The tone is really set from the top and goes down,” Wright said. “If the wardens and managing officers are tolerant of the violence, that is when you see the raised levels.”

Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida prison warden, once set the tone of upper-level management, but now serves as a jail and prison consultant.

According to McAndrew, institutions should be treated like pressure cookers. To prevent the pressure contained within from causing an explosion, there must be a way to release it.

Within the prison system, inmates can release their frustrations and anger at correctional officers’ behavior by filing grievances.

Thousands of complaints are filed each year, but for such a system to effectively release pressure, inmates must believe their complaints are taken seriously.

Instead, “99.9 percent of grievances are denied or returned without action,” McAndrew said.

All of those factors – the lack of an effective way to release pressure, a lack of experience among correctional officers, understaffing of officers and a correctional culture that protects its own – may go a long way in explaining the violence in Florida prisons.

But for Henry Brown, an ex-offender who spent a large portion of his life in the Florida prison system, it’s much simpler.

Officer violence sparks inmate violence in return. It’s a vicious environment, he said.

“If you treat a person like an animal, how do you think they’re going to act?”

Part 4: The formerly incarcerated


Each journalist interviewed one of the people that participated in the focus group. These are the stories of the formerly incarcerated.

Sandra Collins Dale White Jake o'Brien
Henry Brown SCOTT GAMMON Patricia McCray
Jerod Powers Blake Jackson Bobby Stanley

Part 5: Focus Groups


By Andy Moser and Kalee Ball

 

In the narrative of prison reform, the voices of the incarcerated often go unheard.

Yet, at least to some, their voices are essential.

“I can’t see not having their voices in this conversation,” said Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice. “They have an indispensable amount of experience. To not offer that would be missing a huge piece of this.”

With that in mind, nine formerly incarcerated men and women came together on March 3 in Tallahassee to discuss things they thought need change within the prison system.  The group was organized by PAJ following a conference on smart justice.

Of the participants, one had spent time in a federal prison and another had been incarcerated within a county jail in this state. The remainder spent their time in Florida state prisons.

While they may have stayed in different institutions, the participants’ experiences with incarceration were similar.

Although the discussion covered a variety of topics, many of the participants’ suggestions focused on three themes: the need to change the culture of prison, the need for more educational and vocational training for inmates, and the need for better mental and social care, including improving contact with families and friends.

Changing the Culture

One focus for prison reform must involve changing the behaviors, language and culture that exists within prisons among and between staff and inmates, focus group participants agreed.  The destructive culture that exists now does nothing to rehabilitate inmates.

“I’ve been out of prison 15 years working with men coming out of prison,” participant Jerod Powers said. “I’ve never met one man who has said that his success came directly from being inspired by the Florida Department of Corrections.”

Inmate-Guard Relationships

Inmate-guard relationships were a key talking point during the focus group. Participants mentioned correctional officers treating inmates in demeaning and hostile ways, including harassing inmates for pursuing an education.

“I think that’s where the system starts to fail immediately,” participant Dale White said.

“We’re locking up people and putting them in cages like animals. The way that these officers talk to these inmates is deplorable.”

Referring to inmates by only their six-digit inmate number dehumanizes the incarcerated person and doesn’t foster an environment based on rehabilitation.

Instead, focus group participants agreed, prison culture would be improved if correctional officers got to know inmates on a personal level.  Such a relationship would break down barriers of prejudice and build a greater level of respect on all sides.

Professionalism and Accountability

Yet another problem area the group mentioned was the need for greater professionalism and accountability among correctional officers.

More specifically, group participants said guard training should be expanded to include greater emphasis on professional behavior and conflict management. Such training would not only improve inmate-officer relationships, but would also improve the experiences of prison volunteers who, focus group participants said, are sometimes treated rudely by corrections officers.

“From the time (volunteers) get to that front gate, with all their fears and trepidations, what they’re expecting to see is professionalism,” Powers explained.

Officers must also be held accountable by the system for their behavior, the group said. If they are engaging in behavior that negatively affects inmates, they should be held accountable for that.

Incentives for Good Behavior

Group participants also said there should be additional incentives provided to inmates for good behavior.  Many noted that the current focus within prisons is on punishment for bad behavior and well-behaved inmates too often go unnoticed.

If the system wants inmates to engage in more good behavior, then those behaviors must be rewarded.

Education and Vocational Training

Former inmates’ ability to make it outside prison depends in part upon whether or not they can secure jobs after they are released.  Much of that depends on the educational or vocational training the former inmate was offered in the correctional system.

That kind of training, however, is severely limited in Florida’s prison system.

In the most recent figures published by FDOC – those for the 2014-15 fiscal year – only 3,142 inmates completed an educational prison while 4,012 were awarded a GED, high school diploma, or vocational certificate. That was at a time when some 100,000 people were incarcerated in Florida.

Part of the problem is that not enough programs are offered.  Another problem is that the completion rates for programs are very low as inmates are often transferred to other facilities, have their job assignment changed so they’re unable to keep attending, or have their participation interrupted for some other reason.

The state budget doesn’t allow for much vocational or educational programming either.  According to its 2014-15 data, the states spends $1.45 daily on education for each inmate, an amount that makes up 3.6 percent of the entire budget.

Offering College Classes

Focus group participants said more funding is necessary to allow inmates greater access to higher education programs. At most institutions there is no access to such programs.

Participant Blake Jackson, who is now finishing up his degree at Tallahassee Community College, said the opportunity to take college courses while incarcerated would help inmates become successful once released.

But that’s difficult these days.

Prior to 1994, inmates were able to obtain Pell Grants to pay for college. But that year, President Bill Clinton signed legislation to make incarcerated men and women ineligible for such grants.

A new Second Change Pell program is being tested now to see if inmates’ chances at success upon release from prison are increased with higher education.

Today in Florida, Columbia Correctional Institution Annex is the only FDOC institution that offers associate-level classes. However, inmates at many other institutions may take distance learning correspondence courses through universities if they are able to fund it themselves, according to Kristina Hartman, chief of the bureau of programs at FDOC.

In addition, the Gadsden Re-Entry Center offers some course in partnership with Tallahassee Community College.

But for many imates, there’s little access to higher education.

“Unless your family can afford to pay for your college classes, there’s not really any options,” said Jackson, speaking about opportunities for educational attainment beyond the GED level. “There’s a lot of states up north and out west where actual universities let inmates take classes, and the students are expected, when they get out, to go and finish (their degree). Programs like that actually offer options.”

Literacy Training

The focus group also talked about the need for basic literacy training.

Thirty-nine percent of Florida inmates during the 2015-2016 fiscal year had an education level that did not exceed fifth grade, and 41 percent of those inmates had a literacy level that did not exceed sixth grade, according to FDOC data.

Currently the FDOC offers very limited literacy training.

Much of that is offered through tutoring sessions provided by volunteers and other inmates.  According to the FDOC report issued for the 2014-15 fiscal year, about a third of all such programs are run by prisoners.

When classes are offered, the waitlist to get into a program can be longer than a year.

Vocational Training

Although prisons do provide vocational training, particularly within re-entry centers, it is, again, limited.

Hartman said the FDOC offers vocational jobs based on inmates’ past experiences. The FDOC also offers U.S. Department of Education-level training similar to technical universities for inmates looking to learn a trade.

Hartman said that these vocational courses are kept full because there are limited seats and many inmates at each institution.

But focus group participants suggested that inmates should be provided a wider variety of vocational programs, such as culinary and technology training, for example.

In addition, inmates should be taught the types of skills needed to be successful in seeking a job. These skills include building a resume, proper job interview ettiequte, knowing how to dress, and more.

Access to Technology

One thing that would help inmates in vocational or educational classes would be access to technology said participants.  In particular, inmates could benefit from being provided tablets on which they could work.

The focus group also suggested that the FDOC could either restrict the use of the tablets or block certain websites.

“One of the biggest things we have when we’re incarcerated is time,” Dale White said. He suggested that time could be more well spent by learning technical skills and computer use.

But currently there are very few technical opportunities. Wakulla Correctional Institution, for example, has a couple dozen computers that must be shared by over 1,300 inmates.

Focus group participants suggested tablets could either be provided to all inmates or simply as a reward for good behavior.

Mental Health Care

Mental health care is already known as a problem in this state’s prison system.  There have been numerous lawsuits filed regarding the lack of appropriate inmate mental health care, as well as two complaints from Disability Rights Florida that have resulted in the FDOC working to make changes.

Eighteen percent of the state’s prison population have mental health diagnoses.  Focus group members especially focused on the necessity of providing therapeutic care to inmates that would allow them to function once released.

In particular, focus group participants suggested prisons could be improved with more one-on-one counseling and individualized care. Some participants cited past traumas in their own lives that were never fully addressed or resolved and were ignored by the prison system.

“These guys in the state (prisons) … are coming out with no serious mental health counseling, no drug treatment,” participant Henry Brown said.

Many inmates, especially those who have experienced personal trauma, could benefit from a treatment plan that is more tailored to their experience, an idea called trauma-informed care.  Recognizing and treating inmates’ psychological reactions to past traumatic experiences could improve their ability to successfully re-enter society once released.

Social Contact

The protocol for visitors is ambiguous and needs to be made clearer, focus group members said.

Several participants mentioned visitors who were denied entry because they were unaware of an obscure rule, or they were wearing the wrong clothes and brought no change of clothes.

Family visitation is a major source of hope for the incarcerated, explained participant Patricia McCray. Hope can be a powerful entity for someone in prison, and the ability to see family and friends can provide rejuvenation for inmates struggling within the system.

“We need to see our children, we need to see our parents, and not doing so is psychological punishment,” said McCray, who served three years in prison.

In addition, many focus group members said that the system sometimes transports inmates far away from their loved ones, making visitation more difficult.  They suggested more consideration be given to a family’s location when transferring prisoners to new facilities.

Part 6: Reforms over the years


By Samantha Dupree and Audrey Carpenter

The changes the Florida prison system needs won’t come easily, despite the fact that most people across the political spectrum seem to agree that reform is needed.

On one side of the spectrum is Vikrant Reddy of the conservative Charles Koch instituteHe argues that prison reform is necessary, as it will save taxpayers money while offering greater protections for the public.

Across the political aisle is Scott McCoy, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center.  He’s just as firm that changes must come, but cites rehabilitation and the necessity of keeping inmates’ families together.

“Both conservatives and liberals want to accomplish the same goals,” McCoy explained.

Reddy agreed.  “Both sides are using a different vocabulary but are getting to the same policy outcomes.”

However, that kind of agreement hasn’t come easily.  Until recently, prison reform was a highly polarizing issue — no more so than during the 1980s and 1990s when this country entered into a tough-on-crime era.

Greg Newburn, the director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, remembered that time for its divisiveness.

“It kind of became an arms race to be as tough as you can be, rather than any push back on that narrative,” Newburn said. 

But the longer sentences championed by tough-on-crime legislation has now led to prison overcrowding and greatly increased correctional budgets. 

The stiff prison sentences also mean some people convicted of lesser crimes who may have fared better in diversionary programs instead become habitual offenders.

Hopes for prison reform were raised in Florida when Gov. Rick Scott came into office in 2011. His transition team recommended restructuring the FDOC and providing independent oversight.

Those reforms, however, never came to pass.

In fact, according to Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, not much reform happened until 2014, when the news media got wind of a particularly horrible inmate death.

The death of Darren Rainey in Dade Correctional Institution didn’t come to light until news articles appeared in the Miami Herald in 2014.  Rainey, who was mentally ill, had been placed in a scalding shower for two hours by officers as punishment, the media reported.

Although a recently released investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office found that there was not enough credible evidence to charge anyone, the horrendous account of Rainey’s experience brought new calls for reform.

“It became apparent that the state couldn’t just be quiet,” Brodsky said. “There was a human being that set off another flurry of journalists looking into this issue as well and Rep. David Richardson taking on the system himself. But he was just one soldier and we needed an army.”

Since 2015, Richardson, a Miami-Beach Democrat, has made 80 to 85 unannounced visits to prisons. He has one-on-one interviews with almost 300 inmates during his visits. When possible, he interviews inmates in private away from guards or prison staff.

“I’ve spent close to 600 or 700 hours working on this project, whatever you read in the newspaper is the tip of what I’ve done,” Richardson said. “I don’t really talk about my work unless I think I need to communicate publicly to effect some change.”

Although Richardson has pushed for changes and even succeeded in having one of the state’s youthful offender prisons closed, the road to reform will be difficult.

Legislators have been hesitant to pass legislation regarding prisons.  And, within the FDOC itself, the last decade has been rough.

Since 2006, seven FDOC secretaries have been appointed and each served fewer than three years in office.  Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010 and appointed four FDOC secretaries over as many years.

The most recent is Secretary Julie Jones, who was appointed in January 2015.  She is the first woman to ever lead the FDOC and was a veteran public-safety administrator.

Part 7: Summary


By Will Weber

Problems within Florida’s prisons are widespread and while the state has made limited stabs at resolving them, there has to date been no wholesale change of approach to the criminal justice system in this state.

That’s despite broad changes in the prison systems of many other states, including Texas and Georgia, two states with notoriously poor systems in the past.

And although this coming year’s $2.4 billion budget allocated to the Florida Department of Corrections reflects a $35 million increase from last year, there are doubts simply throwing money at the problems can address the deficiencies and needs in the prison system.

Particularly disappointing for advocates of systemic change during the 2017 legislative session was the failure to pass a bill that would have created a statewide task force to examine the inherent problems.

The bill proposed a criminal-justice task force to do data-driven analysis into how the state arrests, sentences, releases and supervises offenders. The panel would have included judges, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officials, victim advocates, leaders from around the community and an ex-offender.

Despite its potential and in spite of the fact it was backed by criminal justice proponents from both sides of the political spectrum, the bill failed to pass.

“There was at the outset of 2017, a collective hope that … this was a topic that was going to be taken up,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at the conservative James Madison Institute. “It would have provided a degree of momentum (for prison reform).”

But that didn’t happen.  Instead, Florida seems stuck in the political quagmire of legislative inaction.

And its prison system is stuck in a philosophy that been shown to be both unworkable and ineffective.  That philosophy focuses on the system’s mission.

Despite its stated goal to rehabilitate, the Florida Department of Corrections’ culture suggests punishment takes precedent, evident by a grievance system that doesn’t seem to work well and punishments like close-management solitary confinement, which was deemed by the Supreme Court as likely to cause psychological trauma.

The FDOC’s shortcomings in arenas like inmate education and the introduction of inmates to technology have also led to a system which acts more like a revolving door.  Inmates who complete their time behind bars are let go only to find they don’t have the education or skills to compete for jobs so soon they find themselves back in the prisons.

Education within the FDOC is what one prison advocate – who is also a former judge, former sheriff and a Republican nominee for lieutenant governor — calls the most important aspect of prison reform.

Education is at the heart of the problem, and it’s at the heart of the solution,” the Rev. Allison DeFoor said. “[The system] is designed for failure and we have to own it.”

Formerly incarcerated Henry Brown, who spent 19 years in prison including four years on death row, was a first-hand witness to the shortcomings of education behind bars.

“The Florida Department of Corrections’ educational programs are so bad, so poor,” Brown said. “Once you get inside the FDOC, [education] is a dead issue.”

In fact, one-third of the instruction in prison education programs is done through the Inmate Teaching Assistant programs, which is staffed by fellow inmates rather than staff, according to Cyrus O’ Brien, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan who is studying race, religion and juvenile courts.

Completion rates in programs like these are low – of 100,050 inmates in fiscal year 2014-15, only 3,142 completed an educational program, while the average literacy rate among inmates remains at a fifth-grade level.

And college is almost universally unaffordable or unavailable.

“When you get your GED in prison, that’s pretty much it unless your family can afford to pay for college classes which can be outrageous,” said Blake Jackson, who spent six years behind bars.

There are, however, some small changes on the horizon.

The Second Chance Pell pilot program is an experimental pilot program introduced by the Obama administration to test whether access through Pell-Grant funding to higher-level educational programs eliminates barriers to re-entry and encourage inmates to pursue higher learning.

“Promoting the education and job training for incarcerated individuals makes communities safer by reducing recidivism and saves taxpayer dollars,” former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. said in a press release. “I applaud the institutions that have partnered to develop high-quality programs that will equip these students with invaluable learning.”

Columbia Correctional Institution Annex in Lake City is the only Florida prison to adopt the program, offering up to 50 inmates within five years of release the opportunity to pursue an Associate of Art degree or training in high-demand occupational fields from instructors at Florida Gateway College, according to Kristina Hartman, chief of the Bureau of Program at the FDOC.

Courses there began in the spring of 2017.

Innovative teaching methods are another area where the FDOC is behind the times.  However, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones, during her 2015 Senate confirmation hearing, mentioned the need for inmate-focused programs utilizing technology.

Jones suggested video-conferences as a cost-efficient alternative for visitation between inmates and family, as well as an electronic grievances process which can’t be intercepted by correctional officers. She also advocated allowing 10 to 20 percent of inmates the opportunity to buy a tablet computer from their prison canteen equipped with specialized prison curriculum.

For this series focus-group participants noted tablets would be a great way to capitalize on excess free time by using them to pursue their education.

“I think you would look around the dorm and see people studying all over the place,” Jackson said.

The FDOC is currently finalizing a new contract which will introduce 2,000 tablets into the Florida prison system for educational purposes, according to Hartman. Prisons are also being equipped with digital whiteboards and computer labs for educational training.

An unprecedented, yet seemingly effective way to improve the FDOC was recently implemented in the panhandle.

The FDOC and Tallahassee Community College partnered for the first time to create an institution which not only rehabilitates inmates, but brings jobs to the community.

The result was Gadsen Reentry Center, built on the campus of Tallahassee Community College next to the state’s law enforcement training academy. Gadsen was the first facility in Florida dedicated entirely to preparing inmates to reenter the workforce, said ex-warden Walt Summers in an interview with the Havana Herald.

Inmates at Gadsen receive 100 hours of mandatory life-skill training on things like anger management, drug rehabilitation and basic tasks like balancing a checkbook and constructing a resume. Vocational training is also offered for aspiring electricians and HVAC technicians – something ex-inmates clamor for.

Educational training allows inmates to achieve a GED, and the institution set a maximum student to teacher ratio of 20:1.

Each inmate is given an individualized transition plan for reentry into society, and once released, receive re-entry follow-services every 30 days to gage whether additional services and support networks are needed.

The ratio and individualized care however– while effective – has its flaws.

Because of the rural locations of most Florida prisons, finding appropriate staff has proven difficult.

“Finding people to teach the programs has been a problem,” said the Rev. David Roland, who visits prisons five days per week for chapel services. “How many qualified instructors are you going to find in a fishing village where the population of the town is outnumbered by the prison population?”

Funding is another challenge reentry centers face in rehabilitating inmates.

“There is a heavier cost per inmate because of the cost of the plethora of instructors they require,” said Roland, who visits prisons five days per week for chapel services. “But in the long run it’s better.”

Gadsen only houses inmates within three years of release who are settling in the region, thus bringing jobs to an area struck by low employment.

There are three other reentry facilities in Florida – one in each of the four regions.

Though progress in the quest for logical prison reform has been made, Florida’s incarceration rate still sits at 960 per 100,000 residents, trumping the national average of 890, according to the Florida Policy Institute.

And despite progressive solutions like tablet-based learning and reentry centers dedicated to preparing inmates to join the workforce, the failure of bills like the criminal-justice task force stunt the progress towards true reform – reform from which every citizen – not just inmates – will benefit.