Wasted Minds: Prisoners Languish in Florida Prisons with Little Access to Education
by Ryan McKinnon and Josh Salman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune / GateHouse Media
Dade Correctional Institution employs one teacher for a population of 1,500 men – and just 16 prisoners have earned GED diplomas there over the past four years.
Union Correctional Institution, a North Florida prison with a capacity of nearly 2,200, graduated only nine prisoners during that time.
Century Correctional Institution in the Panhandle went years on end without awarding a single educational certificate.
Prisons have instead emphasized warehousing, creating an environment where prisoner idleness, surging staff turnover and a lack of incentives for good behavior have engendered violence.
“Education is so important in terms of trying to break cycles like poverty and jail sentences,” said Larry Ahern, a former Republican state representative from Pinellas County. “You can’t keep putting people behind bars and not do anything to help them on the inside.”
Nearly 55,000 offenders across Florida will walk out of state prisons during the next five years.
Many will be worse off than when they went in.
The nation’s third largest prison system offers virtually no meaningful education to prisoners, despite overwhelming evidence that it is the strongest antidote to recidivism.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and parent company GateHouse Media spent six months examining the lack of educational opportunities within the Florida Department of Corrections.
Reporters filed a dozen public records requests with the agency for information on educational awards, violence and staffing during the past decade, then used those records to analyze programming in every Florida prison. Journalists scoured case files and zig-zagged across the state visiting prisons and interviewing more than 100 people, including inmates, lawmakers, justice officials and educators.
Among the findings:
• Officials at the highest ranks of the prison system acknowledge the impact of education on reducing reoffender rates. Yet one in three state prisoners reads below a sixth grade level, two in three lack a high school diploma and fewer are earning basic educational credits. During the past eight years, the number of prisoners who completed GEDs in Florida prisons dropped by more than 60 percent.
• The department has shifted its focus to vocation, emphasizing industrial training for mechanics, plumbers and electricians. But many of the certificates are effectively useless. Prisoners who graduated from carpentry classes say they can hardly swing a hammer and cannot find work in their trades upon release.
• Tough-on-crime policies dating back to the 1990s have dismantled prison education. The state gutted prisoner work programs, raided the budget for education to cover shortfalls, and redirected hundreds of millions of dollars generated from prisoners and their families into the state’s general fund – money once reserved for prisoner programming.
• The prison system is struggling to hire and retain staff. Several of Florida’s largest state prisons have no academic teachers – the top facility to prepare prisoners for release went nine months without one. That’s because few want the job. The position requires a bachelor’s degree, despite a starting wage of less than $16 an hour. Competing public schools can offer safer working conditions and better pay.
• As education evaporates – and prisoners are left with more free time – institutions are getting more dangerous. Prison assaults doubled during the past decade, while prisoner-on-staff violence swelled even more. The prisons where the most prisoners graduated also were among the safest.
“Right now, we’re in a ‘punish and contain’ model,” said Michelle Jacobs, law professor and assistant director at the University of Florida’s Criminal Justice Center. “We’ve taken away all of the things – like education – that poor people need to sustain themselves and not reoffend. Without education, you’re pretty much ensuring they will come back.”
Although the state is not required to provide education services for prisoners, many prison officials acknowledge the importance. Several wardens told a state Senate panel earlier this year that the state will either “pay now or pay later,” pointing to the financial strain when repeat offenders circle through the system.
Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, named head of the agency as Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared to take office in January, denied interview requests from the Herald-Tribune. But in an 11-page statement emailed to the newspaper in July, he touted the existing programming, vowed to make inmate education more of a priority and pointed out a recent state funding increase to hire instructors.
“When I was appointed by Gov. DeSantis in January, I immediately recognized the need for additional educational and vocational programming,” Inch said in the statement. “We appreciate the support of the Legislature for adding 20 additional teaching positions for the upcoming fiscal year. These positions will allow us to expand prisoner programming and increase the quality of teacher-led instruction.
“Providing programming to prisoners and offenders is one of the strongest components in reducing recidivism and is also critical to the safe operation of our institutions.”
But prisoners and prison educators say the additional funding is not enough. They want more of the $2.4 billion it costs to run the Department of Corrections directed to prisoner programming. Even tough-on-crime states like Alabama and Texas have been more proactive.
“It keeps me focused. It keeps me motivated. It keeps the hope alive that I can better myself,” said Roger Cassidy, a prisoner at the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, who is enrolled in one of Florida’s few college prison programs. “It creates the dynamic within the prison culture that others see. They’re like, ‘I want to do that. I want to be a part of that.’”
“It creates a positivity that just can’t be explained.”
• • •
Jason Fronczek spent more than four years in state prison for burglarizing a neighbor’s house in 2005.
During his time behind bars, the 46-year-old Navy veteran enrolled in a faith-based education program and worked as a teacher’s assistant.
Fronczek already had a GED, but many others at the institution could not read.
“It was something to see them struggle through it and just learn,” he said. “You could see the hope in their eyes.”
Prison education inspired Fronczek to continue with school upon his release. He enrolled in community college, transferred to the University of Central Florida and earned his bachelor’s degree. He’s now in the master’s program – on track to graduate next spring. He has not reoffended.
“When employers look at your record, and you have a felony, they’re less likely to hire you,” Fronczek said. “The only way to turn that around is education ... it empowers people to do the right things.”
Growing up in a single-parent household in the projects, Brian Graham never thought he would attend college. As a teenager, the Daytona Beach native became rebellious and began stealing cars. He’s been shot twice.
Sentenced for a string of burglaries in 2012, he has a criminal history that includes grand theft of a motor vehicle, driving with a suspended license and battery. He left two children at home when he was given 17 years.
But in prison, education helped the 32-year-old find his way.
Graham finished his GED behind bars, obtained a masonry certification and enrolled in the Stetson University program at Tomoka Correctional, where he is taking college courses.
“I’m trying to squeeze the most out of this,” he said, “so I make sure I never come back.”
Experts point to prisoners like Fronczek and Graham as examples of the power of education in prison.
A study by Rand Corp. in 2013 found inmates who participated in educational programming had 43 percent lower odds of reoffending.
But in Florida, programs such as the one at the Tomoka prison only reach a sliver of the general population. Prisoners within 50 months of release get first dibs on academic programming. Prisoners serving life may never get in.
The prison system is “not designed to help you,” said Lenord Williams, who was released from Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown during April. “There is no hope in this place. I received no education – nothing to really help a person.”
The number of prisoners who earned a GED in Florida prisons slid from nearly 3,000 in 2010 to just more than 1,100 last year.
Those annual graduates equate to about one percent of the state prison system’s total population of more than 95,000.
Prison officials attributed the decline to national GED testing requirements, which became more stringent in 2014.
But Georgia, with about half as many inmates as Florida, confers nearly three times as many GEDs. And unlike its southern neighbor, the Peach State has seen a rise in the number of prisoners earning GEDs in recent years.
Even Texas does it better, awarding more than three times the number of prison GEDs than Florida last year, with a prison population some 50 percent larger.
“The drop in GEDs is such a perfect indicator for how bad things have gotten,” said Karen Smith, secretary for the Gainesville chapter of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “It’s a problem for every prisoner. These people are going to be coming home – living next to you in your communities.”
Florida prisons have handed out even fewer high school diplomas – 800 during the past six years.
More than a third of prisoners read below a sixth grade level. Those familiar with the problems say basic literacy courses are needed most.
“We have a bunch of prisoners who read at a third grade level or are effectively illiterate,” said Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has championed criminal justice reform. “The system is so broken.... We don’t educate them or transition them back into society.”
Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison in Raiford, said he would read letters aloud to a prisoner who was illiterate. One day, he had to read a letter telling the prisoner that his mother had died.
“Don’t you think the literacy program would have helped that guy?” McAndrew said. “It is so easy, so cheap, so good.”
Florida prisons administer the Adult Basic Education test to offenders when they arrive and again periodically to prisoners enrolled in education. While roughly half of program participants made progress last year, they represent just a small fraction of prisoners.
In 2018, only three percent of the overall prison population showed any improvement in math and reading.
Of those enrolled in education programs, just a quarter made learning gains on the Adult Basic Education test and less than half made strides on the GED.
Agency statistics often paint a different picture. In 2004, the prison system reported 87 percent of prisoners completed a 100-hour life skills re-entry course proven to reduce recidivism.
The numbers were seen as a major improvement, until nonpartisan government accountability analysts pointed out that the DOC had eliminated teachers for the course and instead gave inmates a workbook and showed them a video.
“While the prisoners are given the workbooks to read, many are not literate,” the report noted.
• • •
The state has made a clear effort to shift its focus from general academics to industry training.
As GEDs and high school diplomas fell, prisons began handing out thousands of vocational awards for various occupations, granting 14 times as many industry certifications to prisoners as they did a decade earlier.
The idea was to better prepare prisoners for release by giving them skills to work in the trades, which are struggling to meet hiring demands tied to Florida’s construction boom.
But prisoners and employers told the Herald-Tribune the credentials are effectively worthless.
“I couldn’t build a cabinet to save my life,” said one former prisoner who graduated as a cabinet maker and became a teacher’s aide in the program. “But on paper, I’m certified.”
John Ramos, a prisoner at Polk Correctional Institution, said he spent his entire time in an automotive technology class doing bookwork. Then the course abruptly transitioned to marine technology – and the instructor quit.
“That class was a joke,” Ramos said. “The book we were given to study was [copyrighted] 15 years ago. We had no updated curriculum, and when the instructor brought this to the attention of [regional managers], they treated him like he was advocating for prisoners.”
David Reutter, a prisoner at Sumter Correctional Institution, said the largest motivator for prisoners to enroll was to escape the sweltering dorms.
“You can sit in the air conditioning all day,” he said.
The prison system offers industry certificates from six credentialing agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Florida Restaurant Association and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
But unlike industry certifications awarded at technical colleges, the prison programs do not have to be approved by the Florida Department of Education. Federal funding for vocational training flows through the DOE, but the agency does not control the curriculum, set requirements or establish hiring policies.
The DOE publishes its approved industry certifications each year. To make the list, programs must be nationally recognized and require at least 150 hours of instruction.
Some of the DOC’s programs meet those criteria, including construction-related programs through the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
But the majority of certificates offered through the prison system fall short of the DOE’s parameters.
A prison spokesman pointed to the manufacturing and safe food handling certifications offered to prisoners. But the manufacturing award can be obtained without taking any actual classes, while the SafeStaff Food Handler certification takes about 30 minutes online.
The Department of Education does not oversee any apprenticeship programs run through the prison system, which include classroom work and on-the-job instruction with a sponsored employer – the more traditional route for those interested in fields such as plumbing.
Many industry professionals scoff at the prison training. While they agree with the concept of teaching prisoners a trade, they say offenders cannot adequately learn a skill like plumbing or cabinetry without proper hands-on experience.
“Plumbing, AC or some of these other trades are such hands-on skills,” said Joel Sherman, a former criminal defense attorney who now runs a re-entry mentoring program in Tampa. “You have to be in a classroom where you can access certain things. They’re not going to bring 25 toilets in there. But you just can’t do it on a screen.”
Industry leaders who’ve worked with these graduating prisoners say they have to start from the beginning once released, whether they took a plumbing course behind bars or not.
Until a new reform this spring, Florida’s strict occupational licensing laws kept former prisoners from working in many of these trades altogether. That’s because for decades, “good moral character” clauses allowed various industry boards to deny felons of a license over their prior criminal record.
“The problem is that these are not programs approved by the Department of Education, so when they walk out, they can’t get the proper certifications,” said Gloria Salazar, executive director of the Plumbing Contractors Association in Miami. “They don’t have the on-the-job training, so they have to start from scratch. They might know the books, but that’s a very small portion of what they need to learn.”
• • •
Craig A. Mrozowski was considered a model prisoner. He was a good cook and followed instructions, so despite his 30-year sentence for assault and kidnapping, the Florida Department of Corrections let him work a normal job during the day.
It was 1989, and Florida’s prisons were bursting at the seams. Work release centers, where prisoners work a job in the community and sleep in a low-security facility at night, had become an easy way to deal with overcrowding.
Mrozowski was on work release in Bradenton when he took a couple hostage. He shot the family dog, raped the woman and stole their car, driving to Tennessee.
Weeks later, another work release prisoner, Gilbert Diamond, was on his way to his job as a dishwasher when he broke into a home in West Bradenton, where he was accused of raping a woman. Diamond was acquitted by a jury on the rape charge. But a judge sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary, according to Herald-Tribune archives.
The two cases – just miles apart – sparked a national debate about the merits of such programs.
“Prisoner is accused; furor is reignited,” proclaimed the New York Times headline, reporting that Florida’s work release programs were “unleashing criminals on innocent people.” A Herald-Tribune clip dubbed it “Legalized Escapes.”
The state’s screening process was so lax that violent criminals were allowed to mingle with the public – a situation that inevitably led to the Bradenton rape, former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells said.
“I swear to God, it was damn unbelievable,” Wells said.
The benefits of a well-managed work release system are well researched. Prisoners due for release are more likely to find a job, and the money they earn helps offset the cost of their incarceration.
But instead of reforming the screening process to ensure prisoners like Mrozowski weren’t allowed to participate, lawmakers essentially eliminated it altogether.
In the mid-1980s, nearly 13 percent of Florida prisoners participated in work release. Today, it’s just one percent.
The state’s nonpartisan policy analyst urged lawmakers for an “aggressive increase” in access to the program in 2007. But the state continued its cuts, and the number of prisoners at work release centers is just half what it was when the report came out.
Last year alone, budget cuts meant prisoners months away from release were forced to quit their jobs to be bused back to prison.
• • •
As Florida’s work release program withered, lawmakers eliminated one of the biggest incentives for prisoners to participate in educational programs – the possibility of a sentence reduction.
When President Bill Clinton signed his crime bill in 1994, states that instituted so-called “Truth in Sentencing” policies became eligible for new federal grants. At the time, Florida’s prisons had become so crowded that nine out of 10 prisoners were released early simply to clear up space in a cell.
The new federal offer got the attention of Florida lawmakers, who responded by eliminating the possibility of parole in 1994, while passing a law the following year requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
No other state made such drastic changes.
The legislation qualified Florida for $237 million in federal earmarks to build new prisons – and Florida now leads the nation when it comes to prisoners serving their full sentence.
Proponents for the tough-on-crime policies argue that they’ve reduced crime by keeping repeat offenders behind bars. But with no chance of getting a reduced sentence, prisoners have less incentive to participate in education.
Florida shaves just 60 days off of a prisoner’s sentence for earning a GED, high school diploma or technical training certificate. Prisoners can also build up credit for good behavior. But the 85 percent rule limits how many of those actual days a prisoner can actually use.
Some call it the biggest impediment to prison education in Florida.
“Prisons are hard enough to run with a ton of incentives and programs,” said Len Engel, the director of policy and campaigns for the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute. “When [prisoners] know they’re serving five more years no matter what, it doesn’t matter if they do something bad.”
• • •
Prior to 2003, proceeds from commissary sales and phone calls went into an “Inmate Welfare Trust Fund” that was supposed to be used for chapels, education and wellness programs. The account generated millions annually, providing a steady stream of revenue to pay for teachers and courses.
But too often, the money went to softball gear, televisions, junk food and weightlifting equipment. One former legislator said wardens even purchased pornography to placate prisoners.
“The department used these activities to keep prisoners occupied because it did not have enough work and education programs,” a 1996 state-issued report on the fund stated.
Lawmakers and prison officials sparred annually over how much autonomy wardens should have over the money, which came almost entirely from prisoners and their family members.
Frustrated with the lack of control, Victor Crist, a former Republican state senator from Tampa, sponsored a bill in 2003 redirecting the revenue back into the state’s general coffers. Crist said his intent was to give lawmakers line-item control over how the money was spent – and eliminate purchases such as X-rated films.
“They were showing porno in the prisons,” Crist said. “We just wanted to fix the problem.”
But as the state struggled to meet federal standards, the funds never found their way back into educational programming.
An analysis by the Florida Senate in 2016 determined that the trust fund would have accrued roughly $45.5 million each year — or more than $227 million over the previous five years. That’s nearly equivalent to the total amount allocated toward inmate education during that time.
From 2010 to 2013, commissary revenue would’ve surpassed the amount legislators spent on these programs by more than $26 million.
Florida is one of just a handful of states without an inmate welfare trust fund, according to a 2013 survey of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. That speaks volumes to Paul Wright, a former inmate and founder of Prison Legal News, a magazine focused on criminal justice issues.
Florida “doesn’t even pretend to have a prisoner trust fund,” Wright said. “Florida is just kind of out there when it comes to its punitive measures against prisoners.”
Crist said lawmakers should now re-establish the fund with strict parameters.
“Reallocate it back to the programs, so they have their own independent funding source,” he said. “That’s the way it was intended to work.”
The additional funds could have softened the impact of budget cuts.
The DOC uses just 3.4 percent of its $2.4 billion budget on education. In June 2017, budget cuts forced the prison system to reduce the number of sites operating the online high school program.
And programming took the brunt of the hit last year when lawmakers underfunded the DOC by $50 million because of health care cost increases.
The state inked a $375 million deal with health care provider Centurion of Florida – the only company to enter into negotiations. The provider is owned by Centene, a major donor to former Governor Rick Scott, and their contract included a lucrative 11.5 percent administrative fee, an incentive that previous contractors had not received.
To cover the new costs, the DOC took $28 million from programs focused on mental health, substance abuse and re-entry.
Long-time DOC critics are particularly disturbed by the trend, given the troubled history of the agency.
“There has been a real dial back,” said David Richardson, a former Democratic state representative from Miami Beach, who would often arrive unannounced at prisons across the state during his time in office. “And that’s concerning knowing that education is important to rehabilitation.”
• • •
Even prisons officials who want to offer more educational programs say they are constrained. There are not enough teachers to lead the courses.
Several state prisons have no full-time educators on staff. The largest re-entry center, which has a mission of preparing prisoners for release, went about nine months without a GED teacher.
The number of academic, special needs or vocational teachers on the payrolls declined 21 percent during the past decade, according to a GateHouse Media review.
Those do not count “vocational instructors” at prisons, which include such employees as food service coordinators, who help oversee prisoners working in the kitchen and are not budgeted under prisoner programming. The number of these “vocational instructors” fell 16 percent.
The prison teaching position requires a bachelor’s degree, despite an average salary of about $36,000 – or just more than $17 per hour. The job also demands additional certifications annually, which the teachers have to pay for, wardens said.
For comparison, teachers at Sarasota County Public Schools average $59,880.
Prison teachers’ starting pay is $15.67 per hour, just $1.41 per hour more than the average for a full-time worker at Walmart. They earn less than the agency’s probation officers, inspectors, administration and health care workers.
Because of that, the staff is rife with turnover. Of the 205 teachers on the books in 2017, more than 40 percent were gone the next year.
Fewer than 10 academic teachers remain from a decade ago.
“There is nothing we can do to retain our staff if we’re not at least competitive with our surrounding agencies,” Dade C.I. Warden Jose Colon told a Florida Senate panel in February. “We are literally losing the future of the Department of Corrections.”
With traditional schools, experts say teacher turnover of around 25 percent is considered alarming. That also marks the DOC’s agency-wide turnover rate. The shuffling of the prison teaching staff was much higher.
The biggest losses came at Lancaster Correctional Institution, down from 25 teachers a decade ago to eight. Hamilton Correctional Institution cut its teaching payroll in half to just five teachers during that time, while Taylor Correctional is down from seven teachers to just one.
Brevard Correctional – which gave out more GEDs than any other facility a decade ago and employed 21 teachers at the time – closed in 2011 for cost savings. Another 16 teaching jobs were lost when Indian River shuttered the following year.
A prisons spokesman said employees at these sites were offered positions at neighboring institutions. The closings were part of a larger consolidation that eliminated 11 facilities and saved more than $130 million. But the teaching payroll never recovered.
Paul Fillmore was a clerk with the prison system’s central office when officials learned of his background in web design. They decided to have him teach a course at Wakulla Correctional Institution in the Panhandle.
With little budget for the program, the prison shipped 20 computers from another facility where a similar graphic design class had shut down. But nobody had the passwords, so instructors couldn’t use them. Fillmore, who never taught before, said he was left to set up the classroom and curriculum on his own.
Many students lacked the basic computer skills needed for such a class. Others had no idea what program the prison had placed them in and had no specific desire to learn web design.
“It was just horrible,” Fillmore said. “There were a lot of challenges in leadership.... It was a lot of work for someone like me who didn’t know how to set up a classroom. It was definitely more stressful than it should’ve been.”
Many facilities are using prisoners to lead classes and teach their peers, which has garnered mixed reviews from students. Even then, wardens said they need teachers on staff to oversee the programs and develop course plans.
There are more than 470 state prisoners for each teacher employed by the department.
And for every teacher on the books, there are some 85 corrections officers.
Florida’s approach has turned prisons into violent warehouses, where assaults are skyrocketing and the diminished staff faces increased danger.
Without educational opportunities, prisoners have more free time and less incentive for good behavior. Coupled with the staffing woes, prisons are seeing a surge in violence.
Assaults more than doubled during the past decade, with 5,763 reported incidents of prisoner violence just last year.
Prisoner on staff assaults, which can include anything from spitting to stabbing, swelled at an ever higher rate. Brutality against corrections staffers grew 130 percent during the past four years alone.
During that time, use of force by correctional officers spiked another 85 percent, according to prison records.
Experts draw a clear correlation between the rise in violence and absence of education.
“If an inmate is busy, or occupied with something that interests them, they’re not going to get in trouble,” said Brandes, the state senator from St. Petersburg. “So how do we keep them occupied? Either through education or work.”
Prisoners themselves point to education as a reason to stay out of trouble.
“It keeps you hungry,” said Jared Dougherty, who graduated in May from the Second Chance Pell program at the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex in Lake City. “The more you learn, the better you feel about yourself.… This really opens so many more doors.”
During the past three years, the Baker and Gadsden re-entry centers gave out more educational certifications per capita than any other correctional institutions in Florida by far, graduating hundreds from educational programs each year, despite a total prisoner capacity of 432.
The two facilities were also among the safest.
Just three institutions had fewer assaults per capita than Baker, while Gadsden had the state’s sixth fewest with just 8.5 assaults per 1,000 prisoners during the past three years, according to a GateHouse Media analysis.
Baker and Gadsden are re-entry centers, reserved mostly for prisoners preparing for life after prison, so those offenders may be less prone to violence anyway, knowing an assault could jeopardize their release. But experts say education was a factor too.
In the Panhandle, Santa Rosa Correctional Institution averaged a whopping 224 assaults per 1,000 prisoners over the past three years – topping the state.
Just four traditional Florida prisons gave out fewer total educational credits than Santa Rosa during that time.
A prison spokeswoman said Santa Rosa C.I. houses mental health prisoners and prisoners with some of the highest custody levels in the state – and that those with a history of violence cannot be placed in general population situations, such as a classroom. She said because each prison is so different, comparing these facilities to one another is flawed.
But the trend was even stronger among women’s prisons.
During the past three years, the Homestead and Hernando correctional institutions gave out more high school diplomas and GEDs per capita than other women’s prisons, including Lowell Correctional in Ocala, the Lowell Annex and the Florida Women’s Reception Center. Homestead and Hernando also had fewer assaults than those other facilities.
Education “makes prisoners safer,” said Andrew Eisen, a history professor at Stetson University who helped bring college classes to Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. “If prisoners have things to do during the day, it can enrich their own human capacity.”
Fewer Black Prisoners Graduate from Prison Education Programs
Racial bias poisons every step of Florida’s criminal justice system.
Police target black drivers for pretextual traffic stops, leading to a disproportionate number booked for drugs and other nonviolent offenses. Prosecutors aggressively seek sentence enhancements and additional time for priors. Judges are more likely to sign off on longer prison terms than whites for the same crimes under similar circumstances.
It’s no different behind bars.
Although a disproportionate number of state prisoners are black, white prisoners are nearly 40 percent more likely to graduate from some form of educational programming while incarcerated, according to a GateHouse Media analysis of public prison data.
Without equal access to education, black prisoners have fewer opportunities to turn their lives around – making it harder for them to find jobs upon release – and increasing the likelihood that they will spiral back into the criminal justice system as repeat offenders.
“I can think of no reason why that would be happening but institutional racism,” said Derek Byrd, a Sarasota criminal defense attorney. “There should be no reason for it. It’s disappointing.”
There are more than 45,000 black prisoners in Florida prisons – 47 percent of the system’s total population and the largest racial cohort.
But while black prisoners outnumber whites by about 6,700 in Florida prisons, there were 6,600 more white prisoners who earned GEDs, high school diplomas or vocational training certificates during the past decade.
Experts attribute the disparities to longer prison sentences, cultural differences and prejudicial policies.
The implications intensify in a state where tens of thousands of prisoners compete for GED programs that graduated just 1,100 last year.
“It’s perverse,” said Michelle Jacobs, law professor and assistant director at the University of Florida’s Criminal Justice Center. “It gets back to the issue of whether these bodies that are locked up are worth anything to us as a society.”
During the past five years, 116 prisoners earned a GED or high school diploma at Walton Correctional Institution in the Panhandle.
Just 28 were black.
Avon Park Correctional Institution in Central Florida helped another 77 prisoners with high school equivalency during that same time.
A mere 22 were black.
At Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, more than 100 prisoners graduated from GED or high school programs.
Only 31 were black.
“These tangible skills can alter the arc of a person’s life,” said Gordon Weekes, executive chief assistant public defender in Broward County. “There’s no rational reason a program that addresses education, substance abuse or any other form of betterment should have disparate impacts based on race.... It’s very troubling, and it needs to be addressed immediately.”
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and GateHouse Media spent six months investigating the educational shortfalls for state prisoners and the impact on recidivism.
A study by Rand Corp. in 2013 found inmates who participated in educational programming were 43 percent less likely to reoffend. But in Florida, these courses only reach a small number. State prisons are granting GEDs and high school diplomas to fewer inmates than in the past.
Experts say the state’s approach contributes to the over-representation of black men in prison. By allowing more classroom seats to go to whites, prison educators are putting minorities at further disadvantage, all but assuring they’ll return – and exacerbating the disparities in the system.
“The layers all work together,” said Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. “Who’s watching the ship? It should matter to all Floridians because, in this case, it directly impacts public safety.”
“It’s about meeting the promise of corrections,” she said. “This has been a department of warehousing for too long ... the whole process needs to be looked at.”
A prisons spokeswoman said the agency does not discriminate against any age, race or religion.
“An individual’s race has absolutely no factor in determining access to education program opportunities,” the agency said in an email statement. “Multiple factors affect whether students graduate from programs. Access to educational programs is needs-based. Inmates with lower skill and/or education levels are prioritized above inmates who have higher skill and/or education levels.
“With limited program seats, FDC targets prisoners closer to release to ensure that those most in need are afforded the opportunity to participate in programs.”
• • •
In December 2016, the Herald-Tribune published “Bias on the bench.” The four-part series showed how judges throughout Florida sentence black defendants to harsher punishments than whites charged with the same crimes under similar circumstances, using millions of records in two state databases that track offenders.
In some communities, black defendants convicted of crimes such as felony drug possession or armed robbery face up to triple the time in prison.
The ripple effect can be seen behind bars.
With invariably longer sentences, education is out of reach for many black prisoners.
Although prison officials say there is no restriction based on sentence length, prisoners within 50 months of release get first consideration for academic program placement.
That means white prisoners – serving shorter sentences on average throughout Florida – can skip to the front of the line.
Several prisoners and former prison employees said they do not believe wardens are picking who gets education based on skin color – or blatantly prohibiting black offenders from participating.
“That surprises me a lot,” said Laura Bedard, a former warden and deputy secretary of the DOC, who is now chief of corrections with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “Regardless of race, all prisoners have the opportunity.”
But giving priority to prisoners closer to release allows bias to seep through.
If four white prisoners serving two years and one black prisoner with six years left all apply for a GED course at the same time, the four white prisoners will all likely get in before the black prisoner.
During the past decade, more than 57 percent of prisoners to earn education behind bars had a sentence length of five years or less, according to a GateHouse Media analysis.
Conversely, just 6.6 percent were serving sentences longer than 20 years.
“There’s a real need for education in prison,” said LaShanna Tyson, a former state prisoner who now volunteers to help women offenders learn life skills. “In 13 years, I could have earned two doctorate degrees.”
“Educating the mind is the only way to take you out of that place you’ve always known,” she said. “And for me, that was the projects. That was my life growing up. Education is the key to getting out of that.”
Mitchell Brown, a former prisoner who was incarcerated in Florida for more than 36 years, said culture was a major factor for the disparities.
He said black prisoners were more likely to band together, while whites were more likely to stay isolated. Educational courses offered isolated prisoners a source of community, while black prisoners tended to congregate over sports.
“More blacks spend their time out there on the basketball court, playing flag football, and all this other damn stuff that has nothing to do with advancing yourself,” said Brown, who is black and now works with prisoners on decision-making.
Paul Wright, a former prisoner and the editor of the Prison Legal News magazine, also said prisoners cluster into racial groups – some prioritizing classes, others working jobs in the kitchen and many spending their days on the rec yard.
“There are definitely different values in different cultures placed on learning,” Wright said.
With rules forcing prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentence, there is little incentive in Florida for prisoners to enroll in education to expedite their release. Some believe that has a discriminatory impact on black offenders.
Experts point to prison violence and gang affiliation – which can preclude prisoners from academic participation – as other reasons fewer minorities are getting help.
The largest gangs within Florida’s prisons are primarily populated by black and Hispanic prisoners, with the Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples having the strongest membership, according to an Office of Inspector General report from 2013.
Prisoners known to be involved in gang activity are not allowed to participate in education.
But prisoners and advocates say even prisoners who have long since disassociated themselves from gang life still struggle to get in.
And once a prisoner has been flagged as a gangster, it is nearly impossible for them to shake free of the label, said Bedard, the former DOC deputy secretary.
Prisoners would need to remove tattoos, snitch on another gang member or cooperate with law enforcement. Few if any would take those drastic and dangerous steps, Bedard said.
Ricky Dixon, the DOC’s deputy secretary of institutions, denied in March 2019 that the agency forbids former gang members from access to education.
“Behavior associated with a certain gang may prevent them getting access,” Dixon said before a crowd at Stetson University, “but not the membership itself.”
But Denise Rock, executive director of the prisoner advocacy nonprofit Florida Cares, said she often works with middle-aged prisoners who’ve not been involved in gang activity for years but still cannot enroll in classes due to their outdated classification.
“They never get out of that system,” Rock said.
• • •
The prejudice in prison education mirrors other betterment programs offered throughout the criminal justice system.
A Herald-Tribune investigation in 2017 found more of the beds in substance abuse programs offered to offenders in lieu of prison are reserved for whites.
In Manatee County – once the epicenter of the opioid crisis – blacks represented 23 percent of all felony drug convictions in 2016 but just three percent of rehab admissions, prison records show.
Black offenders also are less likely to be given second-chance opportunities like drug court, a rigorous program that enables defendants to get help with their addictions and keep clean records.
Instead, black offenders face harsh penalties and prolonged punishments – like drug-free zone enhancements – just for living closer to churches and parks.
But some experts say the bias in prison education may be the most detrimental of all.
Many black offenders already face an academic disadvantage from their schooling as youth. Without the tools to improve their lives as adults, they’re more likely to revert to old criminal habits – leading to longer sentences down the line and feeding the vicious cycle of incarceration.
“It’s a human right to have education,” said Keri Watson, who heads the Florida Prison Education Project at the University of Central Florida. “Incarceration is about dehumanization. The really important thing to me is for people to get to feel their humanity.”
Higher Education Offers Solutions to Mass Incarceration
In a small room without windows, tucked behind concrete walls and razor fencing, men in prison blue huddle around the glow of a projector.
They are graphing quadratic functions.
All have regrettable pasts; one is finishing a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. But on this day, their focus is algebra.
The instructor is out because of a family emergency. But with graduation just a few months away, the students don’t want to fall behind. So one of them picks up the syllabus and takes it upon himself to lead the class.
On the edge of Osceola National Forest, just minutes from the Georgia border, Columbia Correctional Institution is home to Florida’s only state-run educational program for prisoners earning college degrees.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue – it’s a workforce issue,” said Lawrence Barrett, president of Florida Gateway College, which leads the program at Columbia C.I. “When you look at recidivism rates, the chances of someone going back to prison go way down with education.”
Educational opportunities for prisoners are scarce within the Florida Department of Corrections. A six-month investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and parent company GateHouse Media found several of the state’s largest institutions are granting GEDs and high school diplomas to fewer prisoners than in the past, while a staffing crisis and prisoner idleness propel a rise in violence.
In the early 1980s, almost one in 10 prisoners across the country was taking college classes.
But when President Bill Clinton signed an anti-crime bill in 1994, the measure banned incarcerated students from obtaining federal aid. Within three years, there were just eight college prison programs left.
Florida colleges are now trying to fill the gap by tapping volunteers and offering courses to prisoners who qualify. A bright spot, these programs offer prisoners hope – something they cherish most.
But the courses only reach a tiny portion of the general population. Efforts to expand have been stymied by a lack of funding and state policy.
“We wish the state would invest more in [prisoner] educational programs,” said Andrew Eisen, a history professor at Stetson University, who leads classes at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. “We are just a bunch of small volunteers right now, and there are [nearly] 100,000 people incarcerated in our state. We can’t reach them all.”
• • •
Johnny Yates lost control of his life to drugs.
He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade when he had his first child and moved from one low-paying job to another.
“I never thought I would do anything,” Yates said.
He is now serving a 10-year sentence at Columbia Correctional for kidnapping, grand theft auto, possession of meth and aggravated assault.
When he first got to prison, his only thought was his next high – and returning to the same old life.
Now, he’s a college graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
Yates earned his GED in prison, and then enrolled in Florida Gateway College through the Second Chance Pell program. He graduated with honors in May.
“At first, I thought it was a joke,” he said. “This is not what I expected in prison. But why not? I have the time.”
With an associate’s degree in science, Yates plans to work in a water treatment plant upon his scheduled release in 2022.
“For me, this is everything,” he said. “It’s a great thing for guys getting off the street ... I wish we had more programs like this.”
Florida Gateway runs the only Second Chance Pell program in Florida – one of about 65 across the country.
A 2015 Obama administration initiative restored only a fraction of the Pell funding for incarcerated students. Unlike the previous program, individual students cannot qualify — it’s up to the schools to open a classroom behind bars.
Florida Gateway was the only college in Florida to apply.
“The biggest challenge is that the state made it clear, because of current laws, that we would only be able to do this if it was self-sustaining,” said Barrett, president of Florida Gateway.
Current state rules prevent the college from dedicating any other public resources. All of the textbooks, class material, adjunct professors and even a part-time administration are funded through the federal grant – about $375,000 as of March 2019.
“There’s been a lot of pressure to expand it,” Barrett said. “But I can’t do it.”
Just five minutes away from Florida Gateway’s campus – in an area known as the “prison triangle” – Columbia Correctional has the largest average daily prison population in the state, with about 3,200 prisoners, the assistant warden said.
A dorm for men in the college program is sequestered from other prisoners. The students live with 48 guys in a group bunk, rather than the typical two to a cell.
Students start at 8 a.m., with three to four classes a day – and four to five days of classwork a week.
There are three classrooms – one used for substance abuse programming – and a computer lab. The students even have an emotional support dog.
Nearly 50 students have graduated from the program so far. All have either obtained an associate of science degree in water quality, or a general associate of arts degree, which allows them to transfer to four-year state schools. The average GPA is nearly 3.8, and all but three graduated with summa cum laude and magna cum laude honors.
“These people will be getting out in less than five years,” Barrett said. “They have to start thinking about a pathway. And we know the days of just releasing people and saying ‘you’re on your own’ don’t work.”
When Andrew Eisen and Pamela Cappas-Toro moved to Florida, the married couple knew they wanted to start a prison education program inspired by their time at the University of Illinois.
It took more than three years, but they’re now offering credit-bearing classes through what they consider a “satellite campus” at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. More than 35 Stetson professors have given lectures there on their various areas of expertise – everything from music to the environment to Python computer programming.
“We quickly noticed there was no prisoner education,” Cappas-Toro said.
Students incarcerated at Tomoka have spent more than a year researching the history of slaves at nearby Spring Garden Plantation. Off the St. Johns River, the park is a local tourism destination, once host to a skiing elephant show and now home to a popular pancake restaurant. But hidden from the public eye is the site’s dark past that includes a deadly pre-Civil War revolt.
As part of the history project, prisoners dug into records that date back to the early 1800s, including photos and records of old Spanish land grants.
“We’re putting together history of this area nobody has been able to tell,” one of the students said.
They’re now working to redo signs on the site to incorporate the full story.
Stetson is the only four-year university in Florida offering prisoners for-credit courses. Educators would like to expand the program, but they’re at full capacity with space and resources.
About 70 miles away at the Central Florida Reception Center near Orlando, faculty from the University of Central Florida also teach courses to prisoners.
Inside the prison classroom, there is duct tape on the chairs and desks – so prisoners cannot take them apart. Pens with any type of springs are prohibited, for fear those too could be turned into weapons. Corrections officers usually stay in the room. Loudspeakers blast institutional announcements.
But beyond the distractions of incarceration, educators say the students are among the most dedicated.
“They really are some of the best students I’ve ever had,” said Keri Watson, who heads UCF’s Florida Prison Education Project. “They’re really eager. They’re really involved. They’re just great students. They have a different kind of mindset going into it.”
The courses at the Central Florida Reception Center are not credit-bearing. Because Stetson is private, the university can waive tuition for prisoners. UCF, a state school, cannot.
“Florida has the third-largest prison system in the U.S. and up until a few years ago, we had no higher education,” said Watson, who also taught prisoners while at Auburn University. “I figure if Alabama can do it, Florida can.”
The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based human rights organization, found in January that prisoners who took postsecondary education courses while incarcerated were less likely to reoffend and more likely to obtain higher earning jobs.
Experts say increasing access to these programs could offer a solution to the prison crisis.
“Those of us who teach just have a faith and confidence people will live better lives if they have more control over their minds,” said Rebecca Ginsburg, associate professor and director of the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois. “It’s about becoming better people.”
These articles were originally published on July 10, 2019 as part of the “Wasted Minds” investigation, on gatehousenews.com. Reprinted with permission, with minor edits. The online articles include photos, graphics and videos. Copyright, GateHouse Media, LLC 2019.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Education Writers Association.
HOW WE DID IT: Reporters filed 12 public records requests with the Florida Department of Corrections for data on educational awards, violence, transfers and staffing during the past decade. The agency returned dozens of Excel spreadsheets and PDFs in varying formats. Journalists then converted the PDFs, reformatted all of the data to match and ran pivot tables on the spreadsheets, using the results to build a table of programming in every Florida prison. Journalists also pored through criminal cases and crossed Florida to visit prisons and interview sources. Anyone with questions about the reporting process or data analysis can contact Josh Salman at email@example.com.
“Wasted Minds” Team: Ryan McKinnon – Reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Josh Salman – Reporter and Editor, GateHouse Media; Thomas Bender – Photo and Video, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Jennifer F.A. Borresen – Data Visualizations Editor, GateHouse Media; Dak Le – News Engineering Manager, GateHouse Media; Michael Braga – Regional Investigations Editor, GateHouse Media; Emily Le Coz – National Data Editor, GateHouse Media