Something Is Missing In Florida Prisons


May 18, 1992 | Newsweek
Author: PETER KATEL | Page: 63 | Section: SOCIETY




Each cell of Florida’s new 336-man death row has a black-and-white television set. But no one is watching. The new men’s prison on the grounds of the Union Correctional Institution at Raiford, north of Gainesville, is one of several Florida prisons that are all dressed up with nothing to do. In north Florida’s Gulf and Columbia counties, unmanned guard towers loom over empty exercise yards at two 900-inmate prisons. One-man security forces keep thieves out instead of prisoners in. All the prisons were finished this year, but no openings are scheduled. “This is the first time in my career that institutions are built and there is no money to operate them,” says deputy corrections secretary Bill Thurber.

Even if state officials had not badly miscalculated how much money they would have, the prisons don’t offer more than a temporary solution to Florida’s corrections problem. The new prisons, and two expansion wings, were built for 3,100 convicts. But those beds don’t begin to fill the state’s needs: officials have estimated that the system needs to add 5,700 beds each year, at least through 1997. Building enough prison space to meet the demand would cost $116 million a year, with annual operating expenses of $97 million. Between 1980 and 1990, Florida added 25,000 beds at a cost of $389 million; the prisons now hold 46,700 inmates. And no relief is in sight on the demographic front. “We need to do something fairly soon before our system reaches total gridlock,” says corrections-department planner Wilson Bell.

So far, prison administrators have been avoiding illegal overcrowding by letting prisoners out early. But parole-eligible convicts make up a shrinking portion of the inmate population. Last year one third of the 34,479 convicts who entered prison carried mandatory sentences that the state is powerless to curtail. As a result, officials foresee running out of space for new prisoners within the next two years unless new prisons are built.

Space is so tight that prisoners who can be freed early are walking out almost as soon as they’re brought in. Prisoners sentenced to one year are serving 120 days. The average time served by early-release convicts, nearly all sentenced to four years or less, is only 3.8 months. With the prison gate becoming a rapidly revolving door, prosecutors say they have no choice but to resort increasingly to the “habitual criminal” law. “Habituals” must serve at least 70 percent of their sentences before they become eligible for release. “It’s the one thing the prosecutor has in his arsenal that is meaningful,” argues Arthur Jacobs, general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. But that weapon is now being used on all manner of criminals. Habituals are not necessarily violent; two thirds of them are doing time for burglary, theft, cocaine sale or possession and other nonviolent crimes. James Austin of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and a member of a state prison task force says “these guys are not saints, but do you want to keep each one locked up for 10 years?” And if you do, some state officials ask, who will pay the tab?

Prison officials, normally prosecutors’ natural allies, argue that some habituals are as suited for early release as prisoners being let out now. So, remarkably, prison officials have become prison reformers. Some suggest just reserving prison space for the hard-core and violent. Others have called for more residential drug-treatment programs and other alternatives to the expensive penitentiary.

The prison system is last on citizens’ priority list. Pollster Robert Joffee cites a new survey showing that only 9 percent of respondents favor spending more on criminal justice. The message to state pols, says Joffee, is: “You are safer leaving a prison empty than overcrowding a school.” At long last, the pledge to lock ’em up and throw away the key is truly bankrupt.

Caption: Photo: ‘No money to operate’: Thurber (JOHN MORAN)