August 22, 2014

Prison Reform: A Course Correction

With prisons full and a tight state budget, Florida business leaders are pushing reform as a matter of efficiency -- and public safety.

Cynthia Barnett | 5/1/2009

Inmates at Baker Correctional Institution
Skill Building: Inmates learn masonry work at Baker Correctional Institution, one of twp Florida prisons that are now “transitional” facilities for inmates nearing release. Inmates who get a GED and a vocational certificate while in prison are nearly 20% less likely to return to prison. [Photo: John M. Fletcher]

In a classroom tucked behind the razor-wire-topped fences of Wakulla Correctional Institution in Crawfordville, a convicted thief named Darryl Simpson is teaching a class that any high school or college student in Florida would do well to take: Credit and debt management.

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Jailhouse Conversions
Fact: Prisoners at faith- and character-based correctional facilities are less likely to return to prison than other inmates.
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Today’s lesson: Steering clear of debt-consolidation companies. Simpson’s lively teaching style has his fellow inmates engaged and outraged. One man says he’ll write his wife to give her the scoop on credit counseling.

Simpson’s course is among 47 business, general-education, vocational, religion and substance-abuse classes now offered at Wakulla. In addition to inmate instructors, the prison relies on nearly 1,000 community volunteers, from Tallahassee business executives to area religious leaders. All courses are “ultimately geared toward personal growth and character development,” says Warden Russell Hosford. “And it doesn’t cost the state a dime.”

Wakulla, which became a “faith- and character-based” institution in 2006, is one of four such facilities in Florida, reflecting how a new approach toward rehabilitation and life after release is spreading broadly through the Florida Department of Corrections. In addition to the faith-based prisons, there are also two new designated “re-entry” facilities at which inmates get education and substance abuse treatment along with life and job training before they’re released.

The change is striking for a state that for decades has defined “corrections” narrowly: Build more prisons and lock ’em up.

32.8% of all released inmates return to prison within three years of release.

More than 46% of Florida prison inmates have been in Florida prisons before.

15% of inmates have been in the Florida prison system three or more times.

Florida has persisted in that definition despite some inconvenient truths, beginning with the fact that while it locks more people up for longer periods, it cannot throw away the key. Nine out of 10 criminals serve their sentences and are released back into their communities. One in three of those released inmates then commits more crime and is back in prison within three years.

Statistics show that recidivism rates fall dramatically for inmates who receive GEDs, vocational training and especially substance-abuse treatment behind bars. But Florida has ignored those facts in managing its prisons, spending less than 2% of its 2008 corrections budget, for example, on educational, vocational and substance abuse programs.

“From a public-safety perspective, the No. 1 question I’m focusing on is this: Are we sending inmates back into a life of crime?” says Walter A. McNeil, Florida’s Department of Corrections secretary. “We believe there’s a smarter way of looking at crime and punishment and incarceration.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Education, Government/Politics & Law

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