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.
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.