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Florida’s Civil Commitment Center Exhibits Little Change Despite New Contractor

Florida's Civil Commitment Center Exhibits Little Change Despite New Contractor

by David M. Reutter

Despite recent scandals and a new private contractor, the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC) is still a facility with little direction other than as a confinement center to warehouse sex offenders who have completed their sentences.

PLN has previously reported on the out-of-control, "free-for-all" atmosphere that reigned at FCCC. That article, published last year, detailed incidents of FCCC employees selling drugs, delivering contraband to facility residents, having sex with residents, and allowing residents to do as they pleased so long as they were "happy." [See: PLN, Nov. 2006, p.13].

Meanwhile, little treatment was being providing to the then 484 resident sex offenders. In fact, as of May 2005, only 35 percent of the residents were even enrolled in sex offender therapy programs. During Liberty's eight-year term of managing FCCC, only one resident obtained a recommendation from company staff that he should be released.

FCCC was ostensibly created to treat sex offenders after they were released from prison. From its establishment in 1998 under the Jimmy Ryce Act (FS 394.910), the facility was operated by Liberty Behavioral Health Corporation under an annual contract of $18.7 million, or about $42,000 per resident, which is one of the lowest rates in the country.

While FCCC was being touted by state officials as a secure facility to house and treat sex offenders until it was safe to release them, Liberty officials were unsure of FCCC?s mission. "There's a little bit of confusion," testified Susan Keenan Nayda, vice president of operations for behavioral health programs at Liberty, before a Florida State Senate committee. "What is this place? Is it a prison? Is it a mental health center? A residential treatment center where people are clients? What is it? We ask that question sometimes too. We really don't have a lot of guidance around what it is the state wants the facility to be, and we encourage the state to look at that.?

By the end of 2000, FCCC was moved from Martin County to Arcadia, where the former DeSoto Correctional Institution, a 14-acre compound with eight dormitories and support buildings, was located. While Liberty was confused about FCCC's role, state authorities were not: They simply changed the prison's name and filled it with sex offenders who had completed their sentences.

The move to Arcadia provided more housing space, which increased FCCC's resident population. Liberty requested more money, although its staffing levels remained the same despite the population boom. The state refused to increase funding. "The funding provided to operate the facility was the amount negotiated and agreed upon by Liberty prior to its signing of the contracts," said Rod Hall, director of the mental health program office for Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The lack of sufficient funds caused serious problems. "The place is a cesspool of despair and depression and drug abuse -- of people being lost," stated Don Sweeney, a psychiatrist who treats former FCCC residents.

The state blamed Liberty for failing to provide proper treatment and adequate staffing, but critics blamed the state. "There was no money to support the facility and to do what had to be done," said Dr. Robert Bellino, a psychiatrist who worked at FCCC. "It's a political football. They were always turning the screws on Liberty -- 'cut this, cut that, don't spend this, don't spend that.'"

By 2004, Liberty and state officials were practically at war over FCCC's operation. For the state, several embarrassing incidents at the facility made it look bad, including a resident who was murdered over a bag of corn chips and a protest by residents who refused to return to their housing units for months (resulting in over 100 state officers raiding the facility to restore order). For Liberty, the state provided a meager $18.7 million in funding for FCCC for fiscal year 2005. The company had requested $31.1 million.

Liberty staff were hired at a base rate of just $12.89 an hour. "You could have worked at Wal-Mart last week, they put you in front of a computer to read policy for a few hours, then they send you to a dorm and let you go," said Kenneth Dudding, a former internal investigator for Liberty who reported violations at FCCC to the state.

"It was like walking into a war zone," stated Jared Lamantia, a Liberty employee from Pennsylvania who was brought in to work at FCCC. "The residents in that place ran the whole facility."

Florida officials took the convenient quick fix: They changed contractors. In July 2006 the state hired Geo Care, a wholly-owned subsidiary of private prison operator Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, to operate FCCC for $20 million a year and to build a $60 million 660-bed replacement facility in Arcadia by 2008. This sent a clear message that FCCC is really a prison housing sex offenders who have completed their sentences, with little emphasis on treatment.

Despite Geo's claim that the company "strives to provide for the control, care and treatment of civilly committed sexually violent predators in a non-punitive setting," Geo runs FCCC like a prison. "This is more secure than any prison I've been in my life," observed FCCC resident Tom Panno, who served time from 1986 to 2005 for kidnapping and committing a lewd act on a child. "Our movement is restricted to almost nothing without escort. Now we are treated like terrorists at Guantanamo." Panno added that FCCC has more fences and barbed wire than when he served time there when it was a state prison.

Following a resident-on-resident assault on Oct. 28, 2006 while FCCC was under Geo's management, over 100 residents called for an end to double-celling, stating it "is supposed to be a mental health facility, not a prison," and noting they were "to be treated as patients, not state convicts."

Another indication that the state considers FCCC to be a prison is in its contract with Geo -- DCF required the company to employ certified correctional officers at the facility. Geo, however, is running into problems getting its guards certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

FDLE only certifies officers who are employed in law enforcement positions, and has refused to certify Geo's employees. "The issue is simply that certified officers must be employed -- in a position that is designated as a law enforcement position," stated DCF spokesman Al Zimmerman. FDLE maintains that positions at FCCC do not qualify." Geo is exploring options to meet the requirement," Zimmerman said.

Regardless, while politically FCCC remains a secure sex offender treatment center, in reality it is a prison that holds people who have completed their sentences. The distinction is important. While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld post-incarceration civil commitment in Kansas v. Hendricks, 117 S.Ct. 2072, 138 L.Ed.2d 501 (1997), it did so with the understanding that civilly committed ex-offenders would receive treatment in non-punitive conditions similar to those at mental health facilities. To date, few if any states provide such treatment.

Sources: Sun-Herald, Herald Tribune, New York Times

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