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.