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PLN mentioned, quoted in article on Florida prison system

Florida Weekly, Aug. 8, 2014.

July 17, 2014

Our Inmates, Our Burden

At five inmates in state correctional facilities for every 10,000 residents, Florida’s prison population today is nearly three times higher per capita than it was in 1980.

FLORIDA LEADS THE NATION WHEN IT COMES TO increasingly long prison sentences, charging minors as adults, releasing inmates with no supervision, and denying ex-inmates the right to vote, even after they’ve served their time, according to numerous recent studies.

With the third largest prison system in the country, Floridataxpayers pay to house more than 100,000 inmates and supervise others at a cost of $2.3 billion per year.

There are 48 major state-run prisons and seven private, for-profit prisons that contract with the state, in addition to work-release centers, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website.

There is one major prison in Palm Beach CountySouth Bay Correctional Facility is in the small town of the same name, off U.S. Route 27 just south of State Road 80, on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee. It is privately run by GEO Group, a real estate investment trust with 66 correctional facilities on four continents and its headquarters in Boca Raton.

The incarceration business has been good for GEO Group. Its chairman, George C. Zoley, wrote in an annual report to shareholders the company showed “strong operational and financial performance” and that total revenue increased to $1.52 billion in 2013 from $1.48 billion the year before.

We’re No. 1

Florida leads the way in several benchmarks:

¦ Leading the way in long sentences: The average prison sentence grew by 166 percent between 1990 and 2009, more than any other state, costing taxpayers $1.4 billion. That was especially true for nonviolent offenders, who served 194 percent more time, according to a Pew Research Center study.

¦ Leading the way in charging minors as adults: In the last five years, a 2014 Human Rights Watch report found,Florida moved more than 12,000 minors from the juvenile to the adult court system, more than any state — with more than half charged with nonviolent crimes. This is because the state’s “direct file” rule allows prosecutors to move them to the adult system with “no involvement of a judge whatsoever,” the report reads.

“If you look at the population of folks who end up in prison, many of them begin with misbehavior of youth and our historic handling of them,” said Deborrah Brodsky, director of The Project on Accountable Justice at FSU.

Where’s the story?

¦ Leading the way in releasing inmates with no supervision: A 2014 Pew Center report found 64 percent of inmates left with no monitoring or support, the most of any state. The average among all states was 21.5 percent. Some 33,000 Florida prisoners are released back into the community every year. Most inmates are eventually released.

“You can leave our state prison system having been in solitary confinement directly onto the streets, with no supervision,” said Ms. Brodsky. “We’re not ready for folks when they return. We have to have stronger models of mentoring and real integration.

“Let’s give them all the opportunities we can to be successful because it’s in all of our best interests.”

While in prison, inmates often lead an idle existence, said Randall C. Berg, executive director of Florida Justice Institute in Miami, a nonprofit law firm that represents the poor and incarcerated.

“We expect these people to succeed when we do nothing for them,” he said. “It’s kind of a joke.

“So while 88 percent of the prison population eventually gets released, they’re serving a long time in the Florida prison system. It’s hard time and it’s unproductive time for which they do not earn much in the way of an education or life skills to live on the outside.”

Florida spends $37.33 per day on adult male inmates, a Florida Department of Corrections report says. Out of that, most is spent on security, $5.30 on health, and 84 cents is spent on education.

“If you look at the total state budget, where it’s devoted is just in locking people up,” said Ms. Brodsky. “And these are policy decisions that are made both with our legislature, and (the Florida Department of Corrections) itself. This is the strategy we’ve bought into and that is to lock people up.”

Jessica Cary, director of communications for the DOC, contends that the reformers have it wrong. “The department works diligently to facilitate their (inmates) positive re-entry as good neighbors and contributing citizens. Re-entry efforts begin on day one of incarceration and continue upon release. Program opportunities for inmates include education, vocational, combating substance abuse, inmate transition, chaplaincy services, wellness and betterment programs.”

¦ Leading the way in denying exinmates the right to vote: One in 10 people here can’t vote because they were convicted of a felony — and more than one in five African-Americans can’t vote in Florida for the same reason. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.- based research and advocacy group, estimates 1.5 million Floridians with a felony on their record (more than a quarter of the U.S. total) could not vote in 2010. One-point-three million of them are finished serving their time.

Florida’s disenfranchisement rate remains highest among the 50 states,” said research analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D. “Florida doesn’t have a much higher proportion of felons than the rest of the country, but rather its restrictive voting polices are creating such high disenfranchisement rates.”

In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist enacted procedures to restore voting rights to ex-inmates more quickly. This process was later reversed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 and replaced by a five-year waiting period, after finishing their sentences, before people with a felony can apply for restoration of civil rights. But in practice, many lose their right to vote for life.

Explains Dr. Ghandnoosh, “All felony convictions in Floridaresult in a lifetime ban on voting unless rights are restored by the governor. (The) rights restoration process is discretionary and often cumbersome, leaving few individuals who avail themselves of the opportunity to apply.”

It is less likely an inmate will end up back inside prison if he or she can vote. While about one in three people released from prison in Florida end up back inside, a report by the Florida Parole Commission found that among inmates released between 2001 and 2008, the rate of recidivism was cut to 11 percent when their voting rights were restored.

State Inmate No. 196374

Dickson Tharin grew up in Lake Worth, the son of a family of mappers, engineers and land surveyors. He had a burgeoning career in professional golf that ended when he was first sentenced to prison in 1994, the result of a cocaine addiction run amok, he said. That led to a string of drug, theft and property crime convictions, as well as fleeing police, that all told kept him in the state prison system, at numerous facilities, on and off for the next 20 years.

Most recently he served more than five years before getting out last December, but was sent back inside again for a shorter stint at South Bay C.F. after not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. An officer discovered he was violating his parole: he didn’t have a license because he owed thousands in fees to get it back.

Now he’s 43, and back in Lake Worth, trying to start a new life with only three more months on parole. That includes learning how to use online services such as email since there’s no Internet in prison. He has found work at a furniture store and is considering seeing a psychiatrist for help with a depression that seems to have come to stay after his incarceration. He worries that he’s been changed from “a normal guy to a prison guy,” once outgoing but now ever guarded and wary.

“I’ve just seen a lot of beatings,” he said, describing his time in prison as leaving him “shellshocked.” That included correctional officers beating inmates and fights between inmates. “And guards also will get inmates to attack other inmates,” he said, calling their behavior “sadistic.”

“You don’t have a voice there. If you try to protect yourself generally you lose and end up more hurt.”

The first time he went to prison, he had fallen asleep in a house he broke into. The police took him to jail, and his family wouldn’t bond him out for fear he would hurt himself. He waited in jail for about three months before getting a three-year sentence of which he served less than a year.

“My experience in prison was a very very violent one,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of robberies. ... It’s so crazy, it’s incredible. It’s just a subculture. It’s another world.”

Some of the “betterment” programs designed to educate inmates are “so much fluff and B.S.” he said. “You may just watch a video and that’s the class.”

But at Sago Palm Re-Entry Facility, which houses inmates nearing release who will return to Palm Beach County, the staff that ran a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program “really tried,” he said. “Yes, I did get something out of it. I learned some things. I thought I knew it all but I didn’t.”

He called Martin Correctional Institution, a major state-run prison in Martin County, “one of the most violent prisons you’ve ever been in.” Fitting in among the group there meant isolating himself — but not so much that other prisoners thought he might be someone to pick on.

“It’s a fine line between interaction and isolation and you have to know how to balance it, and I’m really good at it now,” he said.

A love of music and a desire to write fiction are the best things to come out of his time behind bars. He would listen to music on public radio on a Sony radio headset “that just saved my life,” he said. “Truly, music and writing just saved me. And I’m not the only one like that, a lot of people do that.”

Pyotr Tchaikovsky as well as Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti are three of his favorites.

“When I heard the music, stories started to develop in my mind and I was able to write metaphorically about what I was going through,” he said. “I kind of got my voice back and my bearings about me. It became very important to me. I would forget about eating I would be so into it. It was kind of my life raft.”

He read from one short story he wrote. The narrator dies in a dream and comes back as a sentient brick lodged in a wall. The wall is across from the home of a woman he loves. He watches her life go by. The years pass, his mind drifts.

“You go to prison, people have to get on with their lives,” he said. “It’s about missing people and not being able to be a part of their life. It’s about love.”

State Inmate No. 196374

The Department of Corrections website provides an address where ex-prisoners are headed after being released.

At one such address in Fort Myers, listed for Joseph Cardenas, a thin man with kind eyes and long gray hair pulled back answered the door.

“He’s pretty much got himself together now,” the man said, telling me where to look for him, at work, at an auto repair shop along McGregor Boulevard.

The next day, Mr. Cardenas was there around 5 p.m., at the end of a day working on transmissions. He sipped an iced tea and talked about his time behind bars, a series of stints, most recently two years for trafficking prescription painkillers, that ended late last year. He originally started taking pills after a motorcycle accident left him with a wicked scar on his leg and a bad back.

Like other prisoners, they gave him $50 on the way out the door and he left somewhat disoriented. His sister and a group of friends, all bikers, from Alcoholics Anonymous, picked him up at CharlotteC.I. They took him to a diner; he can’t remember where.

“I didn’t recognize anything,” said Mr. Cardenas, who is 50. “I was totally lost. I had enough support — just enough to make me look forward to tomorrow.”

Asked about the recent death of an inmate at Charlotte, he said, “It’s true. It happens — I knew every one of those officers.”

A female officer, he recalled, would berate one inmate, calling him a “piece of shit” and a “pervert.” One day he hit her.

“They beat that dude to sleep,” Mr. Cardenas said.

He explained about “sissies,” a matterof fact sounding term for cross dressers in prison; other inmates were “crazy people, walking around shaking;” and he said cigarettes sometimes cost a premium, as much as $5 each. There’s pot, heroin, “every drug you can imagine in prison.”

There is no air conditioning in most Florida prisons, except in the library, he said.

Dental care is required in prison by law, but leaves something to be desired. There was a six-month waiting list in prison just to get his rotten teeth pulled, he said. And dentures in prison? Not a chance. He pulled out his dentures to show off one of the first things he got when he got out.

“You have no rights,” he said. “If they beat your ass, they’ll hide you ’til you’re healed. That’s their world and you need to accept that.”

Although Mr. Cardenas is from Miami, he has been held at a number of different locations during his stays. Like many prisoners, he said, he is shuffled around the state so as not to be close to home.

“They move you wherever,” he said. “They don’t want you close to home because then your homeboys can smuggle you something.”

During one of his sentences, at Everglades Correctional Institution, he saw “a couple people killed.” In one case two prisoners — Latin Kings — cornered a third on the second floor and then tossed him over the rail for stealing their heroin, he said. He doesn’t know if the man was dead or not. He was taken away and didn’t come back.

State Inmate No. Y31563

At another address in North Fort Myers, Christopher Carlisle, 32, lives while working for his family’s paint company. In the cool, dark living room, a refuge from days when steam rises off the hot ground in the afternoon rains, he talked about his time at a DOC work camp and in prison. He was locked up for burglary, grand theft and other charges in March 2011 and released in January.

At a prison work camp, he spent eighthour days picking up trash along the side of a road. But most days, he said, he would get ahead of the supervisors and panhandle. He was able to collect cigarettes, money, beer, pizza and other things that way. He put his haul in a garbage bag and was able to smuggle it back into the facility where he was kept, often by throwing it over the gate and coming back later to collect it, he said. Most days he was able to drink as he worked.

“I went through that gate drunk every day,” he said, adding that he even “puked” sometimes, but the officers didn’t care.

Later he was moved to Charlotte C.I. “That was the worst place I could have landed,” he said, stuck there with “gorillas and killas.”

Mr. Carlisle is only “130 pounds soaking wet and 5-foot-2.”

“The booty bandits in there,” he said, referring to inmates who rape other inmates, “they’ll go after white guys like me.” He “lucked out” that they didn’t go after him.

“I’ve seen it happen,” he said. “I’ve heard the screaming from a few cells down. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do when you have four life sentences?”

When he got out the thing he wanted to do most was “come back and take a regular shower,” he said. “See my kid and take a good shower.”

His daughter is 12. Mr. Carlisle hopes to run his family’s paint company one day.

State Inmate No. Y18503

Emmanuel Joseph, 34, is busy these days running his own lawn care and plumbing services and taking care of four children. Both of his parents passed away when he was young. His mother died in 1992 in Haiti, and his father passed away after having his appendix removed, while Mr. Joseph was attending high school.

He went to live with his uncle in Naples, but soon became involved in dealing cocaine and was busted for a variety of charges related to drugs, as well as carrying a concealed gun and resisting an officer. He ended up spending the better part of four years in the state prison system, from 2002 to 2006.

When he got out, the only work he could manage to find was as a streetside waver for a tax service, dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

“There’s a lot of things that go on in there behind closed doors,” he said of prison life.

He questions the wisdom of “putting a guy with five years with guys doing three life sentences. They should not be with those types of people.

“Prison is not for no man, no woman to be in. It’s disgusting, and it’s not a place for anybody.”

In one fight, he recalled, “Spanish dude had three life sentences. He and a black guy got into an argument. (The Spanish) guy whipped out a big old blade made of lawnmower blade, buried in the dirt on the compound facility, sliced him in half like a piece of chicken right down the center of his body. Next thing his body opened up like a piece of chicken and next thing you know guards see it and everybody’s screaming.”

Surviving the hole

Haneef Shakur is originally from the Chicago area. Now he lives in Naples near his family and found work at a gas station after spending long, hard years in Illinois prisons, incarcerated for murder at age 16. He was part of a gang, Mr. Shakur said. (Haneef Shakur is his religious name, while his legal name is Jeffrey Lurry).

Although another gang member shot and killed someone, he was along for the ride, and ended up being sentenced to 25 years. He served 12 years and three months. Similar to accounts of inmates at Florida prisons, it was a violent place where “we were warehoused like cattle or something,” he said. “Having your freedom stripped away, that and not being able to be with my loved ones — that’s the hardest part of it all.”

Even if some corrections officers taunted prisoners, most of the inmates “with a sound mind” didn’t react to avoid the punishment that would ensue. “I say those with a sound mind because there are a lot of people in prison who really ought to be in a hospital or something,” he said.

First he was kept at Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison known as “the pit” because its levels are built down into the earth. There was no air conditioning and prisoners each had a small fan. “Every year there are so many people who pass out from heat stroke in there,” he said.

Once, during a random drug test, he said he was dehydrated and couldn’t pee. If you test positive or don’t pee, you get six months in “the hole” he said. He had a few pieces of paper to write with and a few books from the library. Otherwise “you’re literally in a cell with nothing at all,” alone. It drove some people out of their minds.

“We used to call them ‘bugs,’” he said. “We’d say ‘they’re buggin’ up in there,’ meaning they’re going crazy.

“I do consider myself strong mentally so I used that time to just try to be more in tune with myself, writing, a lot of reading, exercise. You only get out one time a week for the shower and you can only come out twice a week. To go outside, you go into this little bitty cage area with a pull-up bar.

“And the people that had it the hardest: just imagine someone who is illiterate sitting in there. You can’t really do anything.”

Federal inmate No. 80177280

Andrew Vidaurri is at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman on a racketeering and conspiracy conviction. Unlike state prisoners, who don’t have access to any electronic communication, let alone the Internet, federal prisoners can communicate through a monitored email system called CorrLinks. He contacted me after, which facilitates pen pal relationships, family communication and help with employment upon release, posted a request for comments for this article on Facebook.

Mr. Vidaurri is 33 and was put behind bars in 2011. He lives in a two-man cell, gets up every day at 5:30 a.m. and spends some time working or in education programs. Dinner is at 5 p.m., and around 10 p.m. he reads his Bible before lights out. He’ll be getting out a few weeks after this article is printed, he said, and hopes to start a nonprofit organization that will pair youths with behavioral problems with youths with terminal illnesses.

When he first arrived, the main question on his and other new prisoners’ minds was “What’s the body count in there?” he wrote. “I think that was the hardest time is just not knowing what it would be like. I feel personally that the federal prison offers everybody a fair chance to better themselves if that’s what they desire. They offer everybody different programs about developing life skills in hopes that they discover a positive look at life. Is it a violent place? I’d be lying if I said no. It has its moments… My cell is all brick and steel. It has two lockers and bunk beds, a toilet and sink, with a desk to write.”

Mass incarceration

Along with the rest of the United States, Florida’s prison population exploded in the last 30 years, growing from 20,000 in 1980 to current levels.

An additional 65,000 people are locked up in county jails at any one time.

“A lot of times their mental illnesses are not treated while they’re in jail and they are often released with maybe just a few days worth of medication and no way to get them refilled before they run out,” said Pamela Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County. “I think untreated mental illness is the cause for a lot of incarcerations.”

An avalanche of research in recent years has highlighted the failures of mass incarceration in the United States, which has the world’s biggest incarcerated population at 2.2 million, “five to 10 times the rate in other democracies,” a recent New York Times editorial read:

“The research is in and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and more recently a journalist with First Look Media, reported on this experiment in his book “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” (April 2014). In it, he recounts how Wall Street executives — their actions having led to a financial crisis that ravaged South Florida — escaped prison while primarily impoverished people continue to be locked up in increasing numbers. He explores the intersection of wealth, race, and a justice system rife with layers of inequity built up over decades.

“With criminal justice I think the overwhelming reason for the disparity has to do with the ease of prosecution,” he said. “These white collar cases are very very hard to make. They require a lot of resources in order to obtain convictions.”

Here are also the stories of exinmates, and views from researchers, civil rights activists, and others who hope to reform a system they see as locking up too many for too long, often for the wrong reasons, and with little means of repairing prisoners’ lives once they get out.

The view from outside

Palm Beach County’s South Bay Correctional Facility houses close to 1,900 inmates. The GEO Group, the publically traded, for-profit company that runs the facility under state contract, declined an interview request for this story.

Vice president of corporate relations Pablo E. Paez responded in an email that the company has a partnership with Florida dating back to the 1990s and is committed to “innovative cost-saving business practices.”

Lake Worth-based Prison Legal News, a monthly 64-page magazine that started in 1990 and reports on prisoners’ rights issues nationwide, has often covered GEO Group. In 2012, for instance, PLN reported that an audit by the Florida Department of State found that The GEO Group broke the law by making contributions to politicians in excess of $500 through a political action committee.

“They’re very heavily politically connected in Florida,” said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of PLN.

PLN sued The GEO Group in 2005, asking them to release records that showed successful litigation against the company. It wasn’t until five years later when, pressured before a hearing inPalm Beach County Circuit Court, GEO released the documents, and agreed to pay PLN’s attorney fees.

The FDOC also declined requests for a telephone interview for this story. Florida Weekly filed a written request to visit an inmate education or drug abuse program at the state-run CharlotteCorrectional Institution. That is still pending more than a month later.

FDOC communications director Jessica Cary responded only through email to one set of questions, but not a second seeking further information.

“The department provides accurate, transparent and timely information to inquiring members of the media and the public, according to current state laws,” she wrote.

NBC-2 reporter Lucas Seiler was not surprised by the DOC’s response to interview requests.

“That’s something I struggled with the entire time I was working in Punta Gorda,” he said.

He reported in April on the death of an inmate at Charlotte C.I. Sources told him a group of 10 corrections officers handcuffed and beat Matthew Walker to death, but state agencies mostly didn’t respond to requests for information. Sources also told Mr. Seiler there are places where officers can beat inmates while not on video.

For-profit prisons such as South Bay are also often volatile, violent places, said Mr. Friedmann of PLN, in part because to save money they employ fewer and less-experienced guards than state-run facilities.

FDOC as a whole is “a system for too long that has been from our vantage largely unchecked and not terribly cost effective,” said Ms. Brodsky of The Project on Accountable Justice at FSU. “Imagine a $2.3 billion corporation that has no board of trustees. There’s really no oversight function independent of the agency itself.”

“There’s very little accountability,” agreed Mr. Berg of Florida Justice Institute. “There’s no watchdog.”

However, according to DOC spokesperson Cary, state prisons undergo annual audits to ensure accountability. “The department incorporates all of the ‘best practices” nationwide and as developed in the National Institute of Corrections curriculum.”

Healthcare concerns

The state outsourced prisoners’ medical, dental and mental health care to private companies in 2013. Advocates maintain that the care is subpar even by prison standards, said Mr. Berg.

Corizon has a contract to provide the care in North and Central Florida. Wexford Health Sources provides it in South Florida, including at Charlotte C.I.

“They have a very checkered record in Florida and nationwide,” Mr. Berg said.

“If you’re disabled in prison, it would not be unusual for you, if you have an amputated leg, not to be given a prostheses. If wheelchair bound, given a decrepit nonperforming wheelchair. If you’re deaf, good luck finding interpreters. If you’re blind, good luck getting books on tape or whatever.

“As a taxpayer, (prison) would be a great opportunity for people who have drug habits to go through serious drug counseling programs but the legislature just doesn’t fund that type of care.”

The Miami Herald reported last year that Corizon had been sued 660 times for malpractice in the previous five years and that Wexford weathered 1,092 malpractice claims between 2008 and 2012.

According to the Department of Corrections, it exceeds standards of medical performance and requires that state inspectors monitor the healthcare services at each prison at least two times a year. 


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