Florida’s Brutal Prison System Will Continue to Subsidize Rural Economies, With No Meaningful Reform in Sight
by David M. Reutter
When the Florida Legislature opened for its annual 60-day session in March 2021, hopes were high that at least some of the criminal justice reform bills would pass. High on the list was the savings of about $140 million by closing four prisons. By the end of its session, reform was nowhere in sight with a plan to revisit the issue next session.
Florida is one the few states to reject reform of its justice system as the public comes to recognize the financial burden placed upon it by the “tough on crime” laws of the 1990s. The public has come to accept that people deserve a second chance, and empirical studies are finding it is safe to give that chance.
There are over 145 facilities—including prisons, annexes, and work camps—that comprise the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). Almost 60% of them are in rural North Florida, says a 2019 report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Union and Bradford Counties alone have nine prisons, earning that area the nickname of the “Iron Triangle.”
The Florida Senate had a plan entering 2021 to close four prisons and reduce FDC’s population by 6,000 beds by December 31, 2021. FDC Secretary Mark Inch was opposed to closing prisons. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the prison population shrinking, but an influx of prisoners is expected as the court’s resolve their back log of criminal cases.
“We’re not looking to cut your budget. We’re looking to cut the amount of buildings you have to manage because we don’t have enough people,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson (R). “Spread those people out, you will probably have ample people at that point, and then we’ll give you the money to enhance and take care of the backlog of maintenance, upgrade the facilities so that they can operate on a very high level.”
The Florida Legislature last looked at closing prisons in 2008. Specifically, it targeted Jefferson Correctional Institution, a prison in the rural area of the panhandle. Then as now, some legislators and lobbyists circled the wagons and decried the hit the local economy would take if the closures occurred.
“The closure of a prison in a small rural county would be a death sentence on the community, from the standpoint of creating essentially a ghost town,” Small County Coalition lobbyist Chris Doolin said. “It will cause people to leave. It will be devastating. That’s just the bottom line.”
Sen. Loranne Ausley (D) agreed. “I can tell you that closing any prison in a fiscally constrained county will be catastrophic.” While Ausley also admitted prison “staffing is a real issue across the state,” she said prisons offer the best employment in rural areas. Yes the FDC is chronically understaffed and cannot fill the positions it has in these rural prisons. The pathetic reality is that not many people want to live in these backwater rural areas that only host prisons when other parts of the state are booming and offer higher paying jobs with higher social standing.
As the legislative session progressed, the Senate’s plan was trimmed. In the end, the State’s budget did not require closure of any prisons. It merely provided that FDC “may” develop a plan for the “consolidation” of “a” prison and present the plan by December 31, 2021. Creating a plan is discretionary on FDC’s part, but it was provided a warning.
The Senate wants to curb prison costs and apply the savings to raising the pay for guards. “If [Secretary Inch] chooses not to do it, then I think it’s the body’s responsibility at that particular time that we will take it on, and we’ll take responsibility, and we’ll demand that things happen, whether it’s prison closures or other issues like that,” said Sen. Keith Perry, Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
For several years, criminal justice reform has seen many bills introduced to start the session, but those efforts have all died in committee. The same result was had in the 2021 session.
Sources: Tampa Bay Times, news4jax.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login