I have volunteered at a nearby men's state prison for the past year. I can speak firsthand about how valuable programming is to inmates.
Thank you for your recent editorial columns regarding Florida's criminal justice system. It's important for taxpayers and voters to understand how the majority of our state legislators fail to enact best practices in this field, waste tax dollars and produce inferior results.
I have volunteered at a nearby men's state prison for the past year. I can speak firsthand about how valuable programming is to inmates. It can literally change lives. Changed lives create safer communities when these inmates are released and become our neighbors. I also know that there are many more inmates interested in programming and getting their GED's than current funding and staffing support. Under Rick Scott, funding for the prison programming, including substance abuse help, was drastically cut. Given that around 65% of prisoners are serving time for a drug related offense, does that make sense? Now that some funding has been restored, the Department of Corrections is scrambling to fill positions in programming that were cut under the previous administration.
The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) has recently reduced the minimum age of corrections officers from 19 to 18. Yes, there's a lack of available talent throughout all sectors of our economy now, and most businesses are having a hard time hiring. However, when the corrections officer starting wage is barely above minimum, and you send 18 year old kids in to prisons, you create an environment that is bad for everyone. Low paid officers who are inexperienced and immature can have a huge incentive to smuggle in contraband (drugs) as it can increase their "take home pay" by $500-$1000 a month in some cases. Introducing contraband, particularly drugs, creates safety issues for inmates and staff alike.
To a person, most everyone I have met in leadership in the FDC has a true heart for their work, and they believe increasing inmate opportunities for programming and training is key to reducing recidivism, and thus to improve conditions and safety inside. But these folks can only do with what they are given. And that's where taxpayers and voters have to speak up.
Florida's First Step Act from the 2019 legislative session that was only a "baby step" in the right direction. The Florida Senate, led by Jeff Brandes, has shown they "get it." However, the Florida House has stymied efforts at true reform, so the bill was too watered down to make much of an impact.
I encourage your readers to demand their legislators provide reasonable wages for corrections staff to encourage higher quality applicants, and to remove the incentive to introduce contraband. Demand your legislators implement real criminal justice reform that includes increasing available programming to inmates, including substance abuse treatment, job readiness skills, GED's and trades. They can find money to do these things by reforming mandatory minimums that lock people up for 20 years for non-violent offenses.
Libby Fisher lives in Santa Rosa Beach