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.