DATELINE: JANUARY 6, 2011
Thirty years ago, when Florida’s prison population reached an estimated 20,000 inmates, no one could have foreseen the present situation: 103,000 prisoners in 146 facilities, 30,500 employees, and an annual budget of $2.5 billion. With the world economic crash, the bleak housing market with foreclosures forcing thousands of families into homelessness, widespread unemployment and reduced tax revenues, one doesn’t have to be an economist to realize that we can’t maintain the present system.
Governor Rick Scott has sent shockwaves through the Florida corrections industry by vowing to cut one billion dollars from the bloated prison bureaucracy and budget. Employees fear the loss of their jobs and pensions, with good cause. Hard times call for drastic measures. Can it be done? Can a major part of the prison budget be cut without endangering the public safety while releasing thousands of prisoners? For that is the reality. In order to reach the governor’s goal, the entire prison system must be reduced and trimmed back. The only way to do that is to release prisoners and close prisons.
The past few years the prison system has dealt with budget shortfalls by gutting educational and vocational programs, the very things that reduce the recidivism rate and give released prisoners a fighting chance to become employable, law-abiding citizens and not return to incarceration. More recently, robbing Peter to pay Paul, the Florida DOC has cut the prison food budget, virtually removing meat from the menu, substituting the controversial textured vegetable protein (TVP) into a starchy diet increasingly filled with potatoes, rice, cornbread, dried beans, macaroni, and grits.
The meager food budget, which is a minor percentage of prison costs, can only be squeezed so far. On the other hand, the largest proportion of expense goes to salaries, payrolls, and the lucrative state pension fund, sacred cows that have been off limits to reduction.
Following are four proposals that go a long way toward addressing this controversial subject, proposals that could initially save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. A large percentage of savings would be realized in the first year.
This is only a beginning. Additional proposals will follow. As a man who has served over thirty-two years in Florida prisons, who has witnessed the wholesale squandering and waste of valuable resources over the years with little accountability, I present a viewpoint that has been previously unconsidered. It is time for everyone to step forward and present fresh ideas to solve our mutual societal problems before the entire system grinds to a halt and implodes. We haven’t reached the breaking point yet, but it is getting dangerously close.
Revamp the mandatory sentencing laws. The prisons are chock full of minor drug criminals who are better dealt with in drug treatment and rehab programs than overcrowding the prisons with the harsh minimum mandatory sentences imposed on them. Many of these draconian drug laws were passed in the 1980’s and ‘90’s as kneejerk responses to the crack cocaine epidemic that threatened to overwhelm our country. Rather than focus on the interdiction of ships and airplanes loaded with tons of drugs sent from the source in South America by the billion-dollar cartels, our government decided it would be easier to lock up all the customers, the users and addicts, the vulnerable bottom of the food chain, rather than tackle the bigger societal issues that plague our population.
This myopic view resulted in thousands of young drug users packed into the state prisons at a cost the taxpayers can no longer afford. A new sentencing commission composed of objective experts and professionals, rather than politicians who seek a tough on drug crime label, should be charged with revamping this out-of-touch statutory mess. Only by focusing on a holistic approach to drug addiction, intervening at an early age, tackling the social problems that fuel addiction, rather than the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality that has filled prisons to bursting, can we hope to funnel our children away from incarceration and toward productive lives.
Stop selling cigarettes and tobacco products in prison. The Clean Indoor Air Act is violated thousands of times a day in every Florida prison. Prison officials respond to complaints of dangerous air pollution by stating that cigarette smoking is banned inside all state facilities prisoner housing areas, and anyone caught smoking is subject to disciplinary measures. This is not true. Even in lockdown solitary confinement cells, prisoners are able to obtain cigarettes and smoke, despite regular searches and shakedowns. As long as cigarettes and tobacco products are sold in the prison canteens, the illegal smoking endangering everyone’s health will continue unabated.
A high percentage of prisoners are addicted to nicotine. They can’t stop. Locked in cell blocks, dorms, and sealed secure housing, the unchecked smoking results in choking clouds of secondary smoke and spiraling health care costs in the millions of tax dollars. The unsafe environment threatens the health of thousands of prison employees, as well as the prisoners. The state of Florida is stuck with paying the tab for lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related illnesses.
A few years ago, a study of cancer in Florida found that the highest per capita rate of lung cancer occurred in Union County, which also had the highest percentage of state prisoners, a damning statistic. Nicotine is more highly addictive than many banned narcotic drugs. When the state of Florida becomes the purveyor of these products, the tax revenues from prison tobacco sales are offset by the escalating health care costs the state incurs.
Tobacco products are banned in many county and state corrections facilities nationwide, eliminating the problem and saving millions of dollars in health costs, despite the doom and gloom predictions of tobacco advocates that depriving prisoners of their nicotine fix would result in widespread violence and protests. Such arguments proved to be unfounded. In fact, many prison smokers, unable to quit the deadly habit on their own, were grateful for the tobacco ban. It is time for Florida to wake up and rid the prisons of cigarettes and tobacco products.
Release five thousand prisoners with the shortest times left on their sentences. They will be getting out in the next few months anyway, so let them go now and save at least $120 million. How? Simple. The Department of Corrections budget is about $2.5 billion a year. Divide that $2.5 billion by the 103,000 Florida prisoners for an average annual cost of incarceration of a little over $24,000 per person. Five thousand early releases translates into a $120 million saving.
The logistics are tried and true--extra gain time awards. Do it in phases: grant 180 days gain time across the board to all prisoners, bringing down their release dates six months. Those who fall into the release category with the gain time awards go home, with the exception of course, of those prisoners who, by the nature of their charges, are ineligible for release. This would include sex offenders who fall under the Jimmy Ryce Act, those who have detainers or pending charges in other jurisdictions, or anyone else who otherwise pose a public risk, as a case-by-case review would determine.
Once the first batch of short-timers are released, an additional 180 days gain time would be awarded the same way, resulting in a further prison population decrease. When the 5,000 figure is reached, the extra gain time awards would end for the year.
Release the five thousand oldest prisoners at a cost savings of well over $120 million. Elderly, sick prisoners account for a disproportionate share of the burgeoning health care costs, and the older and sicker they get, the more each one costs the taxpayers. It was reported recently that prison dialysis patients cost $190,000 a year solely for that procedure, not counting the rest of their care. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV, mental illness, and a host of other illnesses are epidemic among the thousands of elderly prisoners, many who led dissolute lives of drug abuse, alcoholism and smoking that damaged their health at an early age. To many of these, the prison system has become a harsh nursing home and hospice that tends them until they die. It would be far cheaper for society to deal with these people outside the corrections framework, rather than inside.
The June, 2010, issue of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, published by the U.S. Department of Justice, “Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009-Statistical Tables,” reveals that 2,096,300 inmates were held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails as of June 30, 2009. Table 17 breaks down this figure by sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age. The data is revealing. An estimated 1,908,400 inmates held in custody, over 91% are between the ages of 20-54 years old. Barely 5%, 104,200 inmates, are in the age range of 55-59 (58,000), 60-64 (25,200), and 65 or older (21,000). 68,200 are 18 or 19 years old.
That is for the entire United States, over two million prisoners. Applying that 5% figure to Florida, we are incarcerating a little more than 5,000 prisoners aged 55 or older. Releasing those elderly prisoners, with the obvious exceptions of dangerous sex offenders, mentally disturbed prisoners, and those deemed incorrigibly violent, would free the taxpayers from an increasingly onerous burden.
Crime and punishment is a young man’s game, heavily weighted toward youth. By the time a prisoner has served twenty, thirty, forty, or even more years in prison, he or she is usually a broken man or woman, in body, mind, and spirit. Continued incarceration serves little purpose beyond vengeance. Let them go.
Conclusion. These measures alone would reduce the prison population by a minimum figure of 10,000 inmates the first year, resulting in closing eight major institutions at a cost-savings of hundreds of millions of dollars the first year. Job training and placement of the unneeded prison staff would have to be addressed, as well as educational, vocational, and job placement opportunities for those released who were capable of working. While not a complete solution to the problem, it is a beginning in the right direction.