Bridges of America prisoner transition group battles state for a second chance

Like the founder of her prisoner-transition program, Dawn Knight aims to be an inmate success story.

Knight, 36, is serving a six-year prison sentence for burglary, grand theft and possession of burglary tools. If not for a drug addiction that began with legally prescribed pills, Knight says she would have never become “property of the state.”

“Today, I have utilized the process of this program to reunify with my family, make amends to those I’ve harmed, and helped those around me to become better people,” she said in a letter imploring the Florida Department of Corrections to keep open the community-based substance abuse facility where she serves part of her sentence. “It’s a life or death matter,” she said.

Dozens of other recovering non-violent inmates have written similar letters, putting a human face on the department’s decision to defund 688 substance-abuse treatment beds at facilities like Knight’s Bridges of America – the largest private provider of prison-to-society re-entry services in the state. Such programs have been shown to reduce repeat crimes.

With about 40 percent of state prisoners incarcerated for drug and property related offenses, and 30,000 inmates released annually, successful substance abuse and employment re-entry programs are important rehabilitation tools to improve public safety and save taxpayer money.

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Where the department has performed comparatively worse in the past, it now says it can do better. It plans to pull $13 million in annual funding from three community-based treatment providers by the end of the year, and incorporate new rehab services from behind prison walls.

“This is an exciting time for the Florida Department of Corrections, and I want to make it very clear that we are not limiting services or the number of individuals served,” said DOC Secretary Julie Jones in a September statement.

The department is betting that the statewide implementation of its new Spectrum program, a scientific needs-assessment system, can reform and de-institutionalize inmates from inside its correctional institutions.

Where Spectrum is scientific, Bridges says it takes a “wholistic approach” to recovery.

Founded in 1980 by the late Frank Constantino, an ex-con imprisoned for burglary, Bridges employs a 12-step, faith-based model of addressing root causes of substance abuse and criminality. Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, program participants are encouraged to seek a spiritually based sobriety and make amends to those they’ve harmed. Once a local Orlando-area ministry, Bridges claims to serve 10,000 inmates and offenders internationally.

Providing such services inside prisons can’t be as effective, the group says. In addition to living among violent offenders and potentially active drug abusers, a successful transition, or bridge, back to society requires a phasing-in of everyday life.

“The average person in society makes about 200 decisions a day, and when (criminals) are arrested most of their decisions are made for them, such as when to eat, sleep or shower. But when they are released they are once again expected to make about 200 decisions and now they can’t be bad ones,” Bridges says.

One or the other

Offering both inside and outside re-entry services is off the table.

Tasked with making the most of the department’s $2.1 billion annual budget by Gov. Rick Scott, Jones says renewing state contracts with Bridges of America, Transition House and Stewart Marchman – the private provider organizations offering substance abuse re-entry programs – is too expensive even if they share the same goals.

“Today, more than 60 percent of the Department’s substance use disorder budget is dedicated to treating only a small number of individuals. We know we can do better. We want to provide more services to treat an even greater number of individuals with the same resources,” she said.

On price, Bridges disagrees. The group is suing to keep its doors open, and obtained an internal document through a public records request in which the Department of Corrections outlines its cost configurations. It estimates that community transition facilities like Bridges cost about $52 a day per inmate, whereas DOC can provide treatment services for $13 a day.

In a response statement provided to Watchdog, Bridges says its $52 daily cost is an all-inclusive total, not just the price of its direct rehabilitative services. If an apples-to-apples comparison were made, the group contends, it’s actually cheaper than state-run services.

“Adding in the costs for security, room and board, health care and administration based on DOC-published figures for fiscal year 2014-15, it is conservatively estimated that the comparable cost to serve the same inmates behind the wall will be at least $62.83 per day, a cost increase of $10.05 a day,” Bridges wrote.

Reducing recidivism, or repeat crimes, is another area of contention, and may be where the most taxpayer savings lay.

A 2013 analysis of 200,000 inmates released from state prisons between 2004 and 2011 showed that male offenders who received work release and substance abuse services from contracted community-based treatment providers, returned to prison 6.1 percent less than those who were released directly from a major prison institution. Female offenders receiving work release and transitional services showed a 1 percent decrease in recidivism.

While small in percentage terms, the reductions are meaningful. Each 1 percent decrease equates to 400 fewer inmates over a three-year period at a cost of $20,000 a year per inmate, or $8 million. The 6.1 percent reduction in male recidivism equates to $48 million over three years – more than enough for the 688 substance abuse beds to pay for themselves.

A track record

Bridges’ 30-year track record has not gone unnoticed within the broader criminal justice community. House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Orlando Police Chief John Mina are among the group’s supporters.

Judging by the success stories outlined in participant letters and public relations events, it’s easy to see why.

“I thought I was a lost cause. I was broken to say the least. I thought I would never change,” said Leslie Little. “I have grown so much. I now know that I don’t have to use drugs to be happy and to feel normal.”

“Now I stand as an independent business owner,” said James Rogers. “I truly believe that transition in my life after serving seven years was only because of the treatment I received while in the Bridges therapeutic community program.”

“I want others behind me to have the same opportunities as I’ve been given,” said Knight.

DOC says it’s offering Bridges a chance to keep its Orlando facility open, but the group’s legislative affairs director told Watchdog the offer is far too restrictive. Earlier this year, the group fought to keep DOC from defunding its Broward and Manatee County facilities. A compromise solution was reached that Bridges president and CEO Lori Constantino-Brown later said “cost hundreds more future opportunities” for “second chances.”

Whether the department can succeed where it hasn’t before remains to be seen.

“Our top priority is to prepare our inmate and offender populations for successful lives in the community where they serve as productive members of society,” said Jones. “We strongly believe that Spectrum will have broad impacts which include reducing recidivism, lowering the inmate population and preventing future victimization.”

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