Dateline Wednesday, November 26, 2008
THE HIGH COST OF “PRISON DISCIPLINE”
“Inmate X” is a prisoner serving ten years in a Florida prison. He has mental health problems, and takes medication for his bipolar disorder. Sometimes the prison is locked down, and Inmate X doesn’t get his meds, causing him to become “disruptive.” He yells for the correctional officer to come to his cell, tells “Officer Y” he needs his meds NOW!
Officer Y doesn’t like Inmate X. He has never been trained to deal with prisoners with psychological disorders who are required to take psychotropic drugs to control their behavior, and he takes it personally that Inmate X is talking to him in a loud voice. He tells Inmate X to shut up, or he will pepper spray him. Inmate X’s bipolar disorder kicks in, and tells Officer Y where to put his pepper spray.
Rather than call the psychologist on duty to come deal with Inmate X’s “psychological emergency.” Officer Y carries through with his threat and douses Inmate X with pepper spray. He then calls for backup, a “cell extraction team” with a riot shield enters Inmate X’s cell, pounds on him for a few minutes, chains his hands and feet, throws him in a “strip cell” for a few days and writes him “disciplinary reports” for disorderly conduct, disobeying a direct order, and assault.
Inmate X is found guilty, is sentenced to several months in lockup, in “disciplinary confinement,” and loses all his accumulated “gain time.”
What do the taxpayers of Florida lose? An estimated $78,000 in the increased costs of keeping Inmate X in prison longer due to the lost gain time, about 1200 days, that he would have otherwise been awarded had the incident with Officer Y been handled differently! And that is a conservative estimate. With 100,000 prisoners requiring a $2.7 billion annual budget, $75 a day per prisoner is a minimum figure for the costs of incarceration. For the thousands of “psych threes,” mentally-ill prisoners requiring thousands of dollars each for medication costs, and the thousands of dollars each for medication costs, and the thousands of prisoners suffering from HIV infections, hepatitis, heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses that cost the taxpayers millions of extra tax dollars, the annual costs of incarcerating one prisoner can easily reach $100,000.
Surely we can agree that maintaining discipline and order in Florida’s prisons can be a difficult, yet crucial commandment. “Care, custody, and control” are the three legs of the prison mandate. Problems develop when a certain class of “correctional officers” take their desires for “control” beyond their legislated authority and abuse their power to write “disciplinary reports” that are unwarranted, undeserved, and even false.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a big deal for prison administrators to give their guards a free hand in controlling prisoners, and if that means allowing some guards to be overly strict in enforcing rules, overlooking questionable actions and issuing blanket denials of grievance appeals of purportly false “D.R.s,” then so be it. And if a sizeable portion of the “D.R.s” written by a minority of these guards were “personal,” satisfying their own urges to inflict punishment, to teach someone a lesson, to bring someone down a notch, or even to jam his time, to intentionally write a bogus D.R. that will cancel a prisoner’s release on parole, in effect adding years to his sentence, so what? What’s the harm? It’s a difficult job, it’s hard to keep good people, so let them run the compound however they see fit. Right? Wrong!
What if you, the taxpayer, discovered that the unfettered writing of unwarranted or unnecessary disciplinary reports was possibly costing Floridians as much as $48.5 million to $251 million in increased costs of incarceration every year! Would you want a closer look taken at what is going on in your prisons? You betcha’!
Let’s look at the numbers. These are estimates, ball park figures, gleaned from prison staff and newspaper accounts, but more accurate numbers could be obtained from official Department of Corrections and Florida Parole Commission sources. They know exactly how many disciplinary reports are written each year, exactly how many parole dates are suspended for how many years, at what cost. For the sake of argument and enlightenment, let’s go to the ballpark, check out the scoreboard.
Florida prisons hold about 100,000 inmates. Thousands more are on deck in the county jails, waiting their turns. Let’s say those 100,000 inmates receive 50,000 disciplinary reports in a year. Some prisoners can go a year or more without receiving a D.R. Others might receive three or four at once, go to lockup, become targeted by a vengeful guard, and receive a dozen in a week, causing them to spend additional months in solitary confinement, or even get sentenced to several years of “close management” (C.M.), where they stay in extremely restricted lockdown conditions for long terms.
I’m not saying that all these D.R.s are unwarranted. There are many bad people in prison who have no intentions of mending their ways, who continue criminal activities inside, such as drug dealing, loan sharking, gambling operations, gangs, and other hustles and scams, and when they are caught with drugs, weapons, and other serious contraband, they are written up, got to lockup, rightly so. Some examples:
Two prisoners argue over a debt or a football score, get into a fight, and get D.R.s. An inmate causes a disturbance, incites a riot, he goes to jail. Cuss out a guard, refuse a lawful order, refuse to work, get caught in an “unauthorized area,” run from a guard, assault a guard, attempt to escape,--the list goes on and on. Happens all the time. “Be twenty-one,” they say, take responsibility for your own actions. But what about when you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve broken no rules, but you draw the attention of a rogue guard who has a personal dislike for you, who abuses his authority, who writes a bogus D.R., who locks you up “on the house?” What can you do? Virtually nothing usually.
Get a D.R. for “verbal disrespect,” the guard locks you up, says you cursed him, it’s your word against his, no witnesses. Who are they going to believe? You have a parole date riding on this, you file the grievances, which are rubberstamped denied. “Based on an officer’s statement” is a good one. You can file in court, circuit court, state appellate court, federal court, up the ladder, filing fees, court costs, years of time and trouble, case dismissed. Nada.
Let’s say that twenty percent of the 50,000 disciplinary reports are bogus, false, unwarranted. That’s 10,000 D.R.s. Department of Corrections staff estimate that the paperwork costs, the costs of processing one D.R. is about
$ 1,100. That’s $ 11 million of taxpayers’ money squandered right there. But that is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
On a “minor D.R.” one can lose thirty days of gain time as a penalty, not counting the possible time spent in lockup. At a minimum, the inmate loses the twenty days usual monthly gain time award for any month that they receive a D.R. That’s fifty days minimum, at $ 75 a day, or $ 3,750, plus the $ 1,100 processing costs, or $ 4850 for a minor D.R.! That’s not chicken feed. Multiply that by 10,000 and you have a minimum of $ 48.5 million squandered on D.R.s that never should have been written. Add up the costs of “major” D.R.s, where prisoners can lose 180 days of gain time, up to all accumulated gain time, possibly thousands of days, we’re talking about over $ 25,000, and more, for a bogus D.R. That’s as much as $ 250 million in taxpayer money!
Recent news reports stated that the state budget shortfall was a billion dollars or more. The prison system is looking at $ 175 million budget deficit. One suggestion to recoup some of that money is to “restore lost gain time” that was taken for D.R.s. Ding, ding, ding—are the lights flickering on? That’s a good idea, restoring lost gain time, kick them out of prison a few months early to the same release date they were originally entitled to, save millions of dollars on the costs of incarceration, having to feed them, heal them, house them. Get them out of the system, get them jobs, support their families, pay taxes. But wouldn’t it be better if there was improved and better oversight of some of these rogue officers, so that a greater percentage of unwarranted disciplinary reports were never written at all?
There is a principle called “progressive discipline” that governs how prison guards are supposed to administer discipline and correct behavior. The first step in progressive discipline is the verbal warning. A correctional officer observes a prisoner committing an infraction and verbally warns him that his behavior is wrong, counseling him not to do it again. The second step is the “corrective consultation” or c.c., generally known as a written warning, still fairly informal, but logged on a “contact card.” So many c.c.s in a month can result in a D.R. The most drastic step, the D.R., is supposedly reserved for the worst cases, when the inmate has ignored repeated calls to adjust his behavior.
There are guards who brag that they haven’t written a D.R. in years. It’s not that they are lazy, or slackers, not doing their jobs, but the opposite—they know how to talk to prisoners, they are respected, and they are obeyed. They don’t have to run in, write D.R.s, and lock people up. They give orders, and the prisoners obey them. That method of carrying out your job is better for everyone. Think of the tax savings alone.
On the other hand, certain guards are so hateful and nasty that they try to lock up someone everyday, and if the person gets angry, resulting in a “use of force,” so they can beat them or gas them, so much the better. These guards brag about having written literally hundreds of D.R.s over the years, like it’s a badge of honor, rather than an incredible waste of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, notwithstanding the human costs their victims incurred and the increase in tension among the general inmate population, increasing the danger for all. There is nothing “progressive” about their discipline. Fire them, and save millions. We can’t afford them.
If you are shocked at how much you are paying to satisfy the punitive urges of guards who regularly write bad D.R.s, wait until you hear what happens at the parole commission as a result of their actions.
“Presumptive Parole Release Date” (PPRD) is the operating term for those thousands of prisoners who are still under the authority of the Florida Parole Commission. The PPRD refers to the calculated date for a prisoner’s release on parole. This release date can be altered for “reasons of institutional conduct,” or D.R.s.
Let’s say a prisoner has served twenty years and has a 2008 parole date. He gets a bogus D.R., loses gain time, costs the state an extra $ 5,000 or so, but it doesn’t stop there.
As a result of the D.R., his PPRD can be extended two years, four years, or more. Some have served an additional ten years imprisonment because of one D.R. At $ 25,000 or so a year for cost of incarceration, that hapless soul could cost the taxpayers an extra $ 250,000 because a wrathful prison guard doesn’t like him and decided to jam his time. That’s for only one person.
In years gone by, when virtually every prisoner was under the parole system, it was a common practice for certain guards to wait until a month or so before an inmate was scheduled to go home, then plant some contraband on him, write him up, lock him up, and cause him to spend additional years in prison. Is that right? Of course not. But it still happens. Besides the moral costs to a society that doesn’t prevent such abuses by “public servants,” the financial costs, in these tough times, are too great for our fragile economy to bear.
Something should be done about it, but where do we start? Right here, right now, let’s get to the bottom of this, put a stop to it, do the right thing. It makes dollars and cents.