Bradenton Five months after Bradenton Bridge received a reprieve from the state to continue operations as transition and work-release facility for female prison inmates, it could be on the chopping block yet again.
Bradenton Bridge, which provides women with counseling, classes and employment opportunities, may be closed July 1. This is the third time in the past few years the facility, 2104 63rd Ave. E., has faced closure.
“Once again, the Bradenton Bridge is up for grabs,” said Lori Costantino-Brown, president and CEO of Bridges of America. The Florida Department of Corrections “is going to take all the re-entry facilities, those owned by us and other vendors, and they are going to close them again and put all the re-entry treatment behind a wall.”
The Florida Department of Corrections budget for 2017-18 has no funding earmarked for operating the Bradenton Bridge, as well as other such facilities around the state, Costantino-Brown said, adding the department made the decision without legislative authority or it being properly vetted. The agreements reached in May for the facilities were for two years, with three one-year renewal options.
On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the “department has no intention of closing any facility down.”
At the Bradenton facility, 123 female inmates were living there as of Tuesday.
“If the Legislature approves the current budget, then when the fiscal year is up Bradenton will no longer have funding and will automatically shut,” Costantino-Brown said. “That’s what the department is proposing right now.”
And when these facilities close, the inmates will be transported back to prisons.
“The idea of trying to throw a little outpatient services at these women and men is not going to meet full needs,” Costantino-Brown said. “It’s really very different from what they are proposing to what we offer. The department is not looking at recidivism rate. They are looking at how many people we can serve.”
A Department of Corrections statement from Sept. 26 about Bridges of America states the department is not ending its partnership with the agency.
“Today, more than 60 percent of the department’s substance use disorder budget is dedicated to treating only a small number of individuals,” DOC Secretary Julie Jones said in the statement. “We know we can do better. We want to provide more services to treat an even greater number of individuals with the same resources. ... Every action we take is strategic and advances our mission to serve Florida’s most challenging population by offering them the greatest chance to succeed.”
While the future of these facilities across the state is in limbo, the inmates who would be affected are writing letters to state legislators saying “Please, don’t do this for us. This is life or death for us. This is our last chance,” Costantino-Brown said.
“These clients are working so hard to try to get their lives back together and they don’t understand it and I can’t explain it,” she said. “Those behind-the-wall services are not effective in the ways these are. ... The pleas are going unheard, at least by corrections.”
There will be no official decision until the budget is adopted and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, Costantino-Brown said. But under this plan, all programs would be shut down within 18 months.
“In the meantime, the department is moving full steam ahead, already shutting down programs,” she said. “They haven’t started the shutdown on Bradenton, but it is on the cut list.”
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who shared his personal story in April as a recovering addict with the women at Bradenton Bridge, said he would be diabolically opposed to the shutdown and will always advocate for this in Tallahassee until “there is no breath left in my body.”
“I’m really upset if the Department of Corrections is doing this again,” he said.
On Tuesday, Rouson was at Desert Hope, a residential treatment facility in Las Vegas, to share his story.
“I am very passionate about recovery, about residential recovery programs, about places like Bridges of America that take inmates in their last few months or as an alternative to incarceration and get them clean so can be accountable, productive citizens when they are released,” he said. “It only makes sense to keep these programs functional, funded and fully operational.”
There is a need for more treatment in prison, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of programs that are successful, said Mark Fontaine, executive director of Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
“These programs have proven to be successful,” he said. “They result in inmates learning the skills they need to transition from a prison life to a community to being a citizen, and the services they offer are comprehensive.”
Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who has been an advocate of keeping the facility open, said it would be a travesty if it is shuttered.
“These women are really encouraged here to straighten up their lives and get mainstreamed back into our community,” she said. “They have developed such a sisterhood here and to send them back to the prison setting would be a crime.”
This would set Florida backward in terms of prison reform, Costantino-Brown said.
“We feel this is a wipeout of everything we have worked for and try to do in this state,” she said. “It’s being done without any discussion with the vendors. ... We have the same mission. We both want to reduce recidivism. We should be advocating for more programs like this, not less.”