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A Faith- and Character-Based Facility
Wakulla Correctional Institution

The Florida Center for Fiscal & Economic Policy 

May 28, 2008

 

Razor Wire in Rural Florida
 Money, Faith and Reform in Florida Prisons

 

Welcome to the Florida Center for Fiscal & Economic Policy's Newsletter.  

By Jim Tait

FCFEP Executive Director 

This issue's article marks a departure from our newsletter's usual editorial content.
 
But we thought it worthwhile reading, especially in light of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission's (TBRC) Statutory Recommendation 19, which "authorizes and encourages the Department of Corrections to expand faith and character-based programs at correctional institutions." The measure also expresses intent that "transition assistance programs for ex-offenders be funded from the cost savings resulting from reduced recidivism rates of those participating in faith or character-based programs."   

One of the Center's partner's (Hugh MacMillan, the article's author) has an active involvement in prison reform as well as rural issues.
 
Although we will be returning to the Center's discussion of the state and local tax and revenue structure, as Paul Harvey says, this issue serves to tell the "rest of the story."
 
In the Center's next newsletter, we will return to highlighting the proposed Constitutional Amendments by the Taxation & Budget Commission, specifically Amendment #5, formerly known as TBRC Constitutional Proposal 02 ("CP02").

Razor Wire in Rural Florida

By Hugh MacMillan

Consultant on Rural Affairs  

Most Floridians don't drive by, live near, work at, reside at or regularly visit a state prison.
 
Yet corrections is a big business in Florida, particularly in rural Florida, where most of the prisons are located. As of January 2008, there were 97,000 inmates locked up in Florida prisons. The Department of Corrections (DOC) employs roughly 28,000 state employees and has an annual budget of approximately $2.7 billion. In most of Florida's rural counties, a job can be hard to find and the prison is often the one place where a man or woman might find a steady job.
 
In Fiscal Year 2006-2007, inmate admissions rose eight percent from the year before to 37,864. Drug crimes accounted for 30.6 per cent, the largest single category. And 35,337 inmates were released from Florida prisons in FY 2006-2007, having served an average of 86.3 percent of sentences --
http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/annual/0607/stats 

 

Here's a big problem: Almost one half the inmates in Florida's prisons have done time in a Florida prison before. And at least one in every three of the inmates released will be returning to a Florida prison within three years of release.
 
This is a problem because the safety of the public is compromised by this revolving door. Also, it is a problem because of the high cost of failure, no matter where we fix the blame -- a complicated human and systemic issue. A conservative estimate of the cost of housing an inmate for a year is around $20,000. When we house the same inmate for the second and third time, one might begin to wonder if there any better ideas for dealing with this ongoing situation.
 
The math is staggering. A new 1,200-bed prison costs about $100 million to build, plus $30 million for annual operating costs. The current recidivism rate of at least 33% means that one out of every three inmates released will return to prison within three years of his release. At least 10,000 inmates released this year will be coming back to prison over the next 3 years at an annual cost of $20,000 each.
 
Governor Charlie Crist made positive recommendations to the 2008 Florida Legislature encouraging the investment of $28.8-million in critical drug treatment programs to cut recidivism and save an estimated $306-million in prison construction costs and $60-million in annual operating costs.
 
For various reasons, the House of Representatives objected and the status quo remains. The overall budget was over $4 billion less than the prior year, DOC had no strong champions in the Legislature and thus was no match politically for other competing interests, not unusual for the agency.
 
Prisons and Rural Florida
 
Most prisoners are tried and sentenced in urban court rooms and most head back to the city upon release, but big prisons in Florida are a rural community matter.
 
The Florida Statutes define a "rural community" based on a county population of 75,000 or less. Of the 67 Florida counties, 32 meet the rural community definition and of these 29 are home to a major state prison -- Baker, Bradford, Calhoun, Columbia, Desoto, Dixie, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Glades, Gulf, Hamilton, Hardee, Hendry, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Okeechobee, Putnam, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Wakulla, Walton and Washington. Flagler, Highlands and Nassau counties are the only rural counties without a prison.
 
In each of the 29 counties mentioned above, the Florida Department of Corrections is one of the most significant employers.
 
Historically, timber and agriculture has been the economic base for these small counties. This is the case with Liberty County. The smallest among these, Liberty is nestled in the Florida Panhandle between the Ochlocknee River of the east and the Apalachicola River on the west, and has a population of approximately 8,000. Liberty Correctional Institution (LCI) houses 1,273 adult male prisoners. With a staff of 330, the prison is the largest single employer in the county and serves as a good example of the state's rural prisons. At this time there are no academic or vocational education programs and limited transition, library and chapel programs.
 
The good news is that there is an emerging consensus that Florida may be ready to make fundamental changes in its basic prison system that can lead to a significant return on this investment in big prisons in rural counties -- dramatic reductions in recidivism rates, stabilization of runaway prison construction costs, and, in the process, helping to make our communities safer.
 
Wakulla County and its Prison with a Special Mission
 
Wakulla County, just south of Leon County, extends to the Gulf Coast and has an estimated population of 28,400.
 
Many Wakulla County residents work with state government in Tallahassee and some have retired to the coast. Among the county's major employers, St. Marks Powder employs 350 people; CSG Systems, Inc. employs 200; and Eden Springs Nursing Home employs 115. Wakulla Correctional Institution has a capacity and employment base similar to LCI's -- 332 employees and an inmate population of 1,701 until its new 1500-bed annex opens this year and these numbers double.
 
Most of us have not lived or worked in a prison. We may not know anyone who has. And we probably never visited a prison. But a few people for various reasons - often related to religious faith - volunteer in prisons to help others. This sustained community volunteer link is a key factor in some dramatic improvements in prisons in Florida and around the country. The basic education, transition and chaplaincy staff is enhanced by coordinated volunteer workers and by the positive efforts of inmate facilitators in various programs and activities. This is not the usual prison culture and to date the prison outcomes are not the usual outcomes.
 
Wakulla Correctional Institution (WCI) is part of the DOC's Faith & Character Initiative, a program designed to build a more positive prison culture through sustained community volunteer links. In fact, a sign at the facility's entrance reads Wakulla Correctional Institution, a Faith- and Character-based Facility.
 
WCI is the only maximum security prison in the United States with that designation. And Florida may be the only state in the country currently implementing faith-based programs in prison based on a policy that meets federal constitutional requirements. That is what The New York Times concluded in a front-page article published on December 10, 2006.
 
The policy of the prison provides that religion and religious expression is voluntary, not supported by state funds, and occurs in circumstances that do not infringe on the rights of other inmates who choose not to participate in the program. When the Senate Criminal Justice Committee decided to make a site visit to WCI in October 2007, Governor Charlie Crist authorized the following statement to be released: "With a firm constitutional foundation, faith- and character-based institutions allow any inmate, secular or religious, to make him or herself into a better person. Through the initial step of volunteering to reside in a faith- and character-based institution, an increasing number of inmates are taking their first step towards personal responsibility and self-improvement."
 
The Tax and Budget Reform Commission (TBRC), which convenes every 20 years to place potential constitutional amendments directly before the voters, recently completed its work. The TBRC approved a statutory recommendation (SR 19) that codifies the Governor's policy statement regarding faith- and character-based prisons and requires study and replication of this model. The key question for this prison initiative is whether it is possible to combine strict professional security management with a prison environment that is essentially positive. An important element for the program's success is the sustained presence of community volunteers who are trained and supervised.
 
On his first day on the job, newly appointed DOC Secretary Walter McNeil visited WCI. Governor Crist recruited McNeil to fill the DOC leadership job because of his performance as Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Every indication is that he has the vision, experience and ability needed to provide true leadership at this difficult and opportune time. Old ways and established cultures resist change and the Florida prison culture is no exception.
 
Rural Florida will continue to receive more than its share of prisons and prisoners and the ex-offenders who choose to make their living in these counties. The TBRC research, analysis and proposed legislation regarding the faith- and character-based prison model helped to elevate this local initiative to a new level of significance as a sound fiscal and economic policy. And it is also relevant that prisons have a new champion in the Florida Legislature with the election of former TBRC Commissioner Representative Daryl Rouson, who introduced SR 19.

 

To finish reading and/or download Mr. MacMillan's article in Acrobart Reader Format, please click here: Razor Wire in Rural Florida: Can Our State's Prisons Succeed? 

 

 

Rev. Allison DeFoor's Editorial
From the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)

 

The link below will take you to an editorial in Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union dealing directly with the subject of Mr. MacMillan's article.

The Opinion Page Editorial, which ran on May 20th, was written by the Rev. Allison DeFoor, an Episcopal priest who engages in prison ministry, as well as one of the state's most vital voices on the subject of prison reform. He has graciously allowed us to share the editorial with our readers.

Rev. DeFoor, a seventh generation Floridian and active in political circles, previously served as a Republican Nominee for Lt. Governor, a county and circuit judge, and as sheriff of Monroe County. Rev. DeFoor was also Vice Chair of Florida's Republican Party.

 

Here's the link -- http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/052008/opl_280611646.shtml 

 

The Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy (FCFEP) is an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization engaged in research and education on state fiscal and economic matters with particular attention to their impact on low and moderate/middle income Floridians and local small businesses owned by, and employing, Floridians.
The Center provides reliable and timely analyses of Florida's budget and tax policies and promotes greater state government fiscal accountability, improved services and an enhanced quality of life for all Floridians.  FCFEP's unique resources and capabilities gives it the ability to assist organizations, program advocates, policy makers and the public with accurate information on important topics in a way that both budget experts and average citizens can understand.
 

For more information about the Center and its work, please visit us online -- www.floridafiscal.org.

 
 

For more information, please contact:

 

Ruben Betancourt, Director of Communications
The Florida Center for Fiscal & Economic Policy

Phone: 850-325-6480 - Cell: 850-339-8207

Email Address: ruben@fcfep.org