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Floridas Civil Commitment Center Under Funded and Out-of-Control

Floridas Civil Commitment Center Under Funded and Out-of-Control

by David M. Reutter

When first created in 1999, Florida's Civil Commitment Center (FCCC) was hyped as a place to house sexually violent predators for protection of the public while providing sex offender treatment after completion of criminal sanctions.

Instead, FCCC has turned into a facility that treats less than one-third of its residents while releasing those who receive no treatment. To date, not one resident has completed the treatment regimen, but over 200 formerly-incarcerated sex offenders have been released from FCCC. A state audit found that FCCC failed to provide a therapeutic atmosphere; drug and alcohol use was routine, sex between staff and residents was not uncommon, pornography was available, and a racially-charged tension existed.

FCCC was created due to a 1998 law commonly referred to as the Jimmy Ryce Act, in memory of a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint, sexually assaulted, murdered and buried inside several large planters by a handyman. The law allows for persons deemed sexually violent predators to be confined indefinitely beyond the expiration of their criminal sentence.

Initially, FCCC was located within a former drug treatment center adjacent to Martin Correctional Institution. In June 2000, FCCC resident Steve Whitsett escaped from FCCC when a friend picked him up in the recreation yard with a helicopter. They crashed the helicopter in a nearby orange grove and were captured in a canal the next day with handguns and over $10,000 in cash (See: PLN, Nov. 2000, p.7). Ironically, a jury subsequently found Whitsett not to meet the criteria for a sexually violent predator.

In 2000, FCCC was moved to a former prison adjacent to DeSoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia. Following its plan to privatize some of its prison operations, the state, effective January 1, 2003, granted a three-year, $45 million contract to Liberty Behavioral Health Corporation (Liberty) to run FCCC. Liberty was the only bidder for the contract, and from 1998 to mid-2006 Florida taxpayers have spent $150 million to operate FCCC. Liberty lost the contract in June 2006 and the 545-bed facility is now being operated by the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut).

Anatomy of Commitment

In 1998 the Florida legislature found that a small but extremely dangerous number of sexually violent predators exist who do not have a mental disease or defect, and enacted the Jimmy Ryce Act to provide short-term treatment to individuals with serious mental disorders and then return them to the community.

To accomplish this task, six people review the case files of 2,000 or more prisoners per year to determine if they should be held under the Ryce Act. Using a prisoners criminal record, court cases, medical and mental health files, victim statements, police reports and other available information, the reviewers make a subjective decision about which prisoners are likely to commit new sex crimes.

We dont have some magic formula where we plug in information to reach the decision, said Greg Venz, former FCCC director and now special counsel for Floridas Department of Children & Families (DCF). The qualifications of psychologists who conduct face-to-face interviews with prisoners subject to civil commitment have been questioned. There are no licensing or accreditation requirements.

My view is that there must be some type of licensing requirement and more specialized training. What Florida has right now is well below the threshold for this highly specialized field, said Natalie Brown, a former Florida evaluator who now screens offenders for programs in Washington and Missouri.

Once an offender is deemed likely to re-offend, they are transported to FCCC to await a jury trial to determine if they are a sexually violent predator. The trial to make this determination is legally required to commence within 30 days, but the average wait is now 2½ years. Some offenders have reportedly been awaiting trial for up to seven years. While 825 men have been held at FCCC, another 600 who were reviewed were found unqualified for the Ryce Act but later re-offended.

A Therapeutic Atmosphere?

For the most part, transfers of state prisoners to FCCC after they complete their sentences are like any other inter-prison transfer. Upon arrival, the resident is confronted with a compound surrounded by razor wire-draped fences and patrolled by armed Department of Corrections guards. The typical dormitory lay-out with central chow-hall and laundry facilities are present, and everyone uses the same recreation yard. FCCC is, after all, a converted state prison. The only true conversion, however, is in the legal classification of the person being involuntarily held there.

The atmosphere at FCCC is a stark difference from Floridas tightly controlled, punitive prison system. Residents wear their own clothes, wear their hair and facial grooming as they please, are allowed to possess cash, and can have packages with TVs, radios and food sent in.

Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. Like most prisons, the alcohol is homemade while most drugs are brought in by staff. That picture was clearly spelled out by interviews conducted by DCF Inspector General Auditors of FCCC residents. Of seven residents interviewed, only one refused to inform.

Other residents said that homemade wine, or buck, was regularly made in the kitchen using five-gallon oil barrels. One auditor was surprised that FCCC staffers made no effort to conceal the activity despite knowing that an inspection was scheduled.

When DCF officials visited FCCC on June 23, 2005, a drunken fight ensued. The auditors interviewed one of the combatants. His eyes were bloodshot, he smelled of alcohol, and admitted he was still drunk and could not talk at that time, the auditors report says. He was badly beaten and sustained a broken nose. A staff member who witnessed the fight said the two men had been drinking all night.

That came as no surprise to investigators. All residents and staff interviewed admitted everyone knows the residents drink and consume homemade alcohol, called buck, reads a February 2005 DCF report. Two residents during the investigative interview admitted being intoxicated at the time.

Residents also said you could smell marijuana on the compound all the time. One stated that there was more weed in this place than I have ever seen in my life. That resident named Coach Wayne Bythewood as the drug kingpin of the staff, saying he brought in drugs and small bottles of liquor to sell to the residents.

Several other residents named staff members who trafficked drugs at FCCC, and said they also smuggled in cell phones. Allegedly, these employees worked with a few select residents to sell drugs one for the whites, one for the blacks and one for the Hispanics.

The drug trafficking was easily accomplished due to the large amounts of cash on the compound. A resident claimed there is probably $10,000 in cash right now at the facility. Much of it came through the mail by tricking the mail lady with a slight of hand, dropping the cash where she could not see it while holding the letter high once opened. Another resident then scoops up the cash. More cash and contraband enters FCCC during family visits.

The greatest mail smuggling job came over the weekend leading up to December 4-5, 2004. That was the weekend when the residents had a cook-in. They smuggled in uncooked chicken, hamburger meat, hot dogs, buns and French fries. After cooking the food in the dorm they sold or gave it away to residents and staff in exchange for cash, tobacco and volunteer labor.

Upon reporting the cook-in to Facility Safety Manager James Staunton, FCCCs investigator, Ken Dudding, was told to let it go in order to avoid a confrontation with residents. That statement coincided with the overall philosophy at FCCC. A staffer told investigators that as long as the residents were not causing problems, staff would ignore any inappropriate behavior or rule violations. Wed rather have them happy than their bad attitude.

Child pornography has been sent into FCCC through the mail, which has resulted in two residents being indicted on federal charges. Sex between residents and staff is widespread. Most of the turnover of staff is due to female staff having sex with residents, says a Liberty memo. That must keep residents happy, indeed.

Same-Old Same-Old

The willingness of staff to overlook or even cover-up rule violations and crimes worried Dudding, who predicted, the danger & will eventually cause the death or serious injury of a staff or resident. That forecast, made in April 2005, would come true twice in the next eight months. But considering that Dudding had investigated over 100 violent episodes during his two-month stint as FCCCs investigator, his prediction was hardly prescient.

In October 2004, FCCC resident Daniel E. Donnelly, 38, was in his dorm watching TV while eating a bag of chips. Alfredo Roebuck, 48, then questioned Donnelly about the bag of chips he was owed. When Donnelly refused to pay up, Roebuck assaulted him while the lone FCCC staff member present stood by telling Roebuck to stop. Donnelly, who was described as a frail resident on a lot of medication, died the next day of head injuries. Donnelly was a rare case; he had committed himself to FCCC after completing his probationary criminal sentence.

Then in December 2004, a basketball rolled into resident George Williams flower garden outside his dorm. When Jorge Delgado, 38, went to get the ball, he deliberately trampled [William's] flowers. An argument and fight ensued. On his way to get a rock to defend himself, Delgado saw an ice pick & on the ground. He then stabbed Williams seven times.

That incident was not the first stabbing Delgado had been involved in at FCCC. In June 2004 he had stabbed another resident 12 times. He avoided criminal charges because staff ordered him to clean up the blood and crime scene.

Its the same-old same-old, nothings changed. In fact, its getting worse, said Dudding. My point is, this [Delgado] is a guy that goes around stabbing people and he can find a knife lying around anyplace.

Sit-In Protest

By November 2004, a small group of FCCC's residents was disgusted with the lack of sex offender treatment and medical care, as well as the poor food in the chow hall. They reported worms in their food. They also complained that sewage backed up in the toilets and drains around the facility. Rather than admit FCCC was an old, deteriorating prison in need of repairs, administrators used the old swan song of prison officials, claiming the residents were flushing blankets and sheets down the commodes.

Resident Jody Colzin experienced poor medical care after he received a broken jaw in a fight. His jaw was wired into place. The wires broke and popped into his lip, said Nancy Morois, president of Family and Friends of Committed Victims, an advocacy group for FCCC residents. He asked to be taken to the emergency room. Instead, a Liberty staff supervisor told him, Youre not going nowhere. He took old, rusty pliers and cut the wires himself, said Morois.

Other complaints include one resident being given heart medication that would have conflicted with his prescription for his high blood pressure. Despite arguing it was the wrong medication, an FCCC nurse ordered him to take it anyway. Another resident complained of shortness of breath, but nothing was done until he passed out in the kitchen. A subsequent examination at DeSoto Memorial Hospital discovered a loose electrode on the residents pacemaker.

The culmination of these problems caused 30 residents to begin a sit-in. They moved all of their property and bedding into the recreation yard and refused to go into the dorms. The peaceful protest came to a crashing halt 89 days later.

On February 9, 2005, FCCC was raided by over 300 guards from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). The raid was hyped by officials as necessary to enforce orders from the state Fire Marshall, who required FCCC to comply with the same regulations as state prisons because of the lockdown atmosphere. That could change if FCCC removed the locks on doors inside the dorms, which FCCC officials refused to do.

The Fire Marshall ordered all plugs in resident cells to be covered and the extension cords that were strung throughout the dorms removed. Some residents confronted the guards with broom sticks; the guards then used chemical agents and physical force to regain control.

Residents claim the guards took educational and religious materials, clothes, family pictures and TVs without providing property inventory slips. Some residents were simply told to throw their property in the trash. My personal possessions are the only difference between making this a clinical setting and a punitive setting and a prison, said resident Mark Ritchie, chairman of FCCC's residents commission. The raid also netted eight gallons of buck. It further gained FDOC a $2 million payment from DCF to bring in the guards to conduct the raid.

Cover Up

After two months on the job as FCCCs investigator, Dudding resigned and filed a whistleblower complaint, which spurred an audit of FCCC. Nearly all of Dudding's allegations were found to be true.

One of his claims was that staff would cover up critical incidents to make it appear they never happened. The primary perpetrators were FCCC Facility Safety Director Tiffany Lane and Facility Safety Manager James Staunton.
The audit demonstrated how Ms. Lane either failed to document, or destroyed, documents she felt were unfavorable toward her or certain staff members, including her own mother, whom she supervised, wrote investigator Kelly Summers. In fact, Lane hired and supervised not only her mother, but a sister, two cousins, another relative and two high school friends.

In June 2003, a resident climbed on top of the roof of the mailroom. Lane had several opportunities to stop him but made no effort, according to staff witnesses. Lane and her best friend from high school, Michelle Allen, viewed the security tapes of the incident. Afterwards, the tapes could not be located by administrative staff.

In April 2004, another resident climbed onto the roof of a building. This time, Lane's mother made no attempt to stop the resident, who was supposed to be on 1:1 status, which is constant supervision in the residents cell. Staunton had failed to promptly enforce a doctors 1:1 status order, providing the resident who had threatened to burn a female staff member time to climb onto the roof. Once on the roof, Lane, Staunton and other security staff confronted the resident, who warned them to back off or he would jump.

Staff members rushed the resident anyway, and he jumped. When Dudding went to retrieve the videotape of the incident, Lane told him to get with her later. Five days later he was given the tapes, which had been erased.
Staunton justified the decision to rush the resident because he was supposedly trying to eat a nail and set himself on fire. Somehow, a video from a handheld camcorder survived. It showed the resident doing nothing other than attempting to light a cigarette. Auditors also uncovered Staunton's alteration of times on incident reports. Lane failed to even write a report for 49 days, and only did so because investigators ordered her to.

Finally, the audit revealed how staffers who complained of misconduct or mismanagement by Lane or members of her clique were given demotions and suspensions, or were terminated. Lane's conduct finally caught up to her on August 20, 2004, when she was fired after she tried to move residents without sufficient resources to accomplish the move. Her termination letter said the move resulted in a hostile and rebellious environment & which took over 20 hours to diffuse.

They've Thrown Away the Key

Since its inception, not one resident has completed the treatment protocol at FCCC. In February 2006, FCCC held about 520 residents. From its inception in 1999, 825 men have been placed at FCCC to await civil commitment jury trials. Of the 300 men released during that time, only five were set free through plea agreements with prosecutors while the remainder were found to not be a danger to the public.

What about the current 520 residents? Most have no realistic hope for release. The blame lies in the lack of short-term treatment envisioned in the Ryce Acts preamble. The fault lies with legislators. What must not be forgotten is that the Florida legislature intended for FCCC to provide short-term treatment of sexually violent predators and then return them to the community. While that certainly sounds like a worthy goal, in reality the legislature has failed to provide the financial backing needed to accomplish the goals of the Jimmy Ryce Act. But it also ignores why, if that is the stated goal, sex offender treatment is not being provided within the Department of Corrections before sex offenders are released.

In its first year, DCF estimated it would cost $27 million annually to operate FCCC. The legislature provided $17 million. Each subsequent year DCF requested more funding, seeking an additional $8.6 million in 2002 to meet the public safety goal of the Jimmy Ryce Act. Legislators responded with silence. In 2003, DCF sought a $1 million increase because the need for new funding to operate the facility in a safe manner has become quite critical. Once again, the legislature ignored the request.

It was only after the February 2005 raid of FCCC that the legislature responded with a $2.6 million allotment. That was only $600,000 more than the cost of the raid, however, so funding to improve operations at FCCC was minimally affected. Florida spends less than half as much at FCCC as it does at other state mental health facilities.

Further, the short-term treatment at FCCC is so short that few even receive it. In its contract with Liberty, DCF stipulated that funds were provided to treat only 150 residents. Hence, the other 370 have nothing to do but wait for additional funding. And wait, and wait.

The minimal treatment that is provided is inadequate. Its common for group sessions not to be held because of staff training, staff turnover, or because its too hot in the classroom, said Dean Cauley, a former FCCC
Mental Health Counselor.

The treatment regimen is supposed to consist of four stages: (1) reception and custody; (2) introduction to treatment-assessment and evaluation; (3) intermediate phases one through four; and (4) community treatment. These are no alternatives to the program. The fourth phase does not exist, which spawned a class-action lawsuit challenging the failure to provide treatment. See: PLN, Nov. 2004, p.35. Other Florida mental health facilities are required to provide adequate care, but in February 2001, DCF exempted FCCC from complying with that rule.

Many FCCC residents are opting to not participate in treatment on the advice of their attorneys or of their own accord. A lot of guys that stay in treatment have been there for four or five years. For what? There aint no guarantee theyre going to get out, said resident Johnny Frazier.

Resident Doug Carlin, 50, learned just that in August 2005. Carlin is the first graduate of FCCC. Three psychologists testified he had gone as far as possible in his treatment and was ready to be released to continue with outpatient sex offender care. Duval County Chief Judge Donald Moran disagreed, stating, while & Douglas W. Carlin has indeed made commendable progress, the evidence is clear that secure confinement continues to be necessary as he continues with his treatment program. The judges order means Carlin will continue to be indefinitely civilly committed for the 1983 rape of a Jacksonville woman.

Medical and Mental Health Care Lacking, Too

Beyond the lack of meaningful sex offender treatment, medical and mental health care at FCCC has continued to be substandard. Resident Ernest Contrillo, 52, had to have his left arm amputated in 2005 due to a gangrene infection that resulted after he repeatedly mutilated himself. He then spent ten days in an outside hospital because FCCC staff failed to keep him on antibiotics. According to a June 19, 2006 article in the Miami Herald, a four-month review of internal records, reports and court cases revealed a startling level of medical incompetence. Drugs were reportedly dispensed without doctors approval. One resident languished in the infirmary for days; mold grew in the urine in his unemptied bedpan. Nurses were threatened and intimidated by residents who demanded medications. The medical care is a mess because they dont want to spend the money on proper care, said Beverly Babb, a former FCCC nurse who quit in 2004.

The Herald found that healthcare at FCCC was compromised by inadequate record keeping, failure to provide basic checkups, delays in treatment, improper use of solitary confinement for mentally ill residents, and misuse (or no use) of certain medications. Only three of 23 residents medical records that were examined met state standards. Lacking additional money from the state, Liberty diverted funds from its already under-funded sex offender treatment program its core mission to pay for mental health care. Residents with serious mental illnesses, including Joseph Myers, 32, who has a history of suicide attempts and hearing voices, have received minimal treatment consisting of monthly visits from a contract psychiatrist. This is an asylum-era institution that has no place in this century, said Douglas Shadle, a psychiatrist who quit his position at FCCC because of conditions at the facility.

The Future of Civil Commitment in Florida

The landscape for FCCC has no real hope of changing anytime soon. But, like, I mean, this is a group of people that are the sickest of the sick, said Florida Governor Jeb Bush. They are truly perverted and not curable. These are grotesque crimes. They should just be put away & imprisoned forever. That would solve this problem. As Bush proposed only a paltry $58,000 increase in FCCCs 2006-07 budget, he's doing his part to ensure that residents are confined indefinitely without needed treatment. Which has been the pattern nationally since Washington started its civil commitment program in 1990.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Kansas v. Hendricks (1997), upheld civil commitment of sex offenders provided the intent is to provide treatment not impose punishment. Treatment and eventual release, however, is not what the state, or politicians, want.

It is political suicide for a legislator to suggest that some of those laws dont work and theyre a waste of public money, said John Q. Lafond, editor of the book Protecting Society from Sexually Dangerous Offenders: Law, Justice, and Therapy.

Critics have pointed out that FCCC residents may choose to avoid treatment without punitive repercussions due to a loophole in the Ryce Act. The whole act is cited as being ineffectual. It's, in effect, the legislature practicing medicine or practicing psychology without a license, said Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychologist and psychiatrist who founded the sexual disorders clinic at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Those same critics question why treatment for sex offenders is not available in prison, a place where treatment can be required in the face of disciplinary action. For two decades, Florida pioneered treating sexual offenders in prison with what was known as the Mentally Disordered Sex Offender Program. When the program was running, prisoners received 20 to 30 hours a week of intensive therapy. The program was cut to save taxpayers $7.3 million a year after adjusting for inflation or less than a third of what it now costs to treat offenders beyond their prison sentences at FCCC.

Even FCCC doctors see legal problems with civil commitment. I think its a constitutional issue, said Dr. Douglas Shandle, a Punta Gorda psychiatrist familiar with FCCC. You have people in a civil facility without the full range of psychiatric services, and without them, they cant get out.

With the political strength of today's prison industrial complex, one can not help but wonder when the government will start extending civil commitment to other violent offenders who have completed their sentences.
They have essentially locked them up and thrown away the key, said Alice K. Nelson, an attorney in the Gainesville Office of Southern Legal Counsel. Which is apparently the whole point behind civil commitment; just ask Gov. Bush and the Florida legislature.
Civil Commitment Update

During the 2006 spring session, state lawmakers proposed to speed up civil commitment trials by limiting continuances to one lasting 120 days. They also hope to earmark more money to provide additional prosecutors and public defenders to handle such trials. The state, further, plans to create a database of mental-health doctors specializing in sexual offenders to testify at trials. No money, however, was allotted to improve the sex offender treatment program at FCCC. DCFs secretary, Lucy Hadi, said the program is properly funded. In terms of priorities, this would not be one that would ask for additional funding, she testified at a Florida House hearing.

A major change took place at FCCC in June 2006 when it was announced that Liberty was being booted by the state in favor of another private operator. Boca Raton-based GEO Group, formerly Wackenhut, and its subsidiary GEO Care, Inc., will run the facility from July 2, 2006 to January 2007 for $7.7 million. DCF later entered into a long-term contract with the company to operate FCCC until 2012. That contract includes the construction by GEO of a $60 million, 660-bed civil commitment treatment facility within the next two years (Liberty filed suit after the state initially requested bids to build and operate a new facility, alleging bid-rigging; the suit has since been resolved). GEO says it will design a new treatment program that is outcome-based rather than time-based; the company has agreed to retain 182 former Liberty employees on an interim basis. Upon losing its contract to run FCCC, Liberty lashed out, claiming it was made into a scapegoat due to failures by the state. Liberty Vice president Sue Nayda stated that DCF had abdicated its responsibilities to establish formal, fundamental administrative rules, regulations or standards to govern the program at FCCC, and said the problems at the facility were due to a legacy of [DCFs] own poor decisions.

Regardless of whether Liberty or the state is more at fault for the deplorable situation at FCCC, the fact remains that hundreds of offenders are languishing at the civil commitment facility for sex crimes they might commit in the future, without even minimal sex offender, medical or mental health treatment, under substandard conditions. Anytime offenders are put in the position where they can pretend to have the moral high ground, then we have done something very stupid, said Don Ryce, the father of Jimmy Ryce, whose 1995 abduction and murder led to the Jimmy Ryce Act and, by extension, the establishment of FCCC.

Sources: Florida Department of Children & Families, Inspector General Investigation 2004-0043, available at: Miami Herald, News Press, Sun Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Florida Times-Union, Associated Press, News Journal,

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