State Politics

Budget ax may fall on prisons

BUSHNELL -- At 21, Joseph Ward has come almost full circle, from prep football standout to drug user, armed burglar, prison inmate and free man.

Ward, his shaved head held high, graduated recently from Florida’s oldest boot camp, a four-month program of education, exercise, faith and discipline at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell. After serving a year at a youthful offender prison in Cocoa, Ward got a chance at boot camp, eligible to offenders younger than 25 who have clean prison records.

“I feel great,” Ward, of St. Petersburg, said as his mother and friends hugged him. “My only option is school. I’m going to St. Petersburg College.”

But Ward may be one of the last graduates of what’s known as the Basic Training Program. As Gov. Rick Scott and legislators seek ways to close a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, one of their targets is the Department of Corrections, where a revolving door of recidivism costs taxpayers billions of dollars, belying the agency’s very name.

Scott and his prison chief, Edwin Buss, want to drastically cut prison costs and say the only way to do that is to trim the prison population, which they say they can do through new programs -- and not a two-decades-old boot camp.

They say Florida’s limited boot camp program is ineffective and want to shift money to inmate services such as literacy, mental health and substance abuse prevention while expanding reliance on privately-run prisons. The goal: fewer Joseph Wards.

Florida’s prison system is a giant warehouse of human misery that costs taxpayers $2.4 billion a year. That’s more than twice the annual budget of the community college system -- a contrast that paints a damning portrait of the state’s priorities.

With more than 102,000 inmates housed in 63 dormitory-style prisons, Florida has the third-largest penal system in the nation, exceeded in size only by California and Texas. One of every 10 inmates is in prison on drug-related charges. The cost of incarcerating one inmate for one year is nearly $20,000.

The agency has 28,000 employees including 21,000 correctional officers. Many earn less than $30,000 a year. Stress and low pay cause rampant turnover in the ranks; an average of 350 guards leave each month.

As a candidate for governor last summer, Scott set off a furor when he said he would cut $1 billion from the state prison budget. Critics labeled it ludicrous and the union representing prison guards ran an incendiary TV ad showing gold-toothed inmates high-fiving a Scott-like character as they walked out of prison.

Scott’s revised plan, urged by reform advocates and business leaders, would steer $135 million to new prevention programs for inmates. Some savings would come from shifting thousands of inmates to private prisons -- an industry well-armed with lobbyists -- forcing layoffs of more than 600 state-employed guards.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is a fierce critic of private prisons. He’s also a strong ally of the Police Benevolent Association, the union for prison guards -- and he chairs the Senate budget panel overseeing prisons.

Fasano says he agrees with Scott’s emphasis on reducing recidivism, but not at the expense of officers’ jobs.

“In my opinion, here in this committee, it’s dead,” Fasano said.

A major private prison firm, the GEO Group, donated $25,000 to Scott’s inaugural celebration.

An unassuming Army veteran, Buss began his corrections career as a prison guard and climbed the ranks to become boss of Indiana’s prison system, with a budget one-fourth the size of Florida’s. Unfettered by personal or political ties to prison employees, he is determined to make Florida prisons something they’ve never been -- models of efficiency.

Buss, 45, has been making site visits and speaks glowingly of the guards who make up the backbone of the system, even as he proposes to lop off hundreds of guards’ jobs.

He has fired dozens of top managers with plans to fire more. In addition, he wants to collapse the system from four regions to two, expand probation officers’ caseloads and discontinue boot camps, which cost about $3 million annually.

“Boot camps were very popular a few decades ago,” Buss told a Senate committee, “but they just haven’t proven to be effective. We’re not getting the outcomes that we thought we would.”

Since the Sumter boot camp began operations in the piney woods of Bushnell in 1987, about 7,800 inmates have enrolled and 4,700 have graduated (60 percent), the state says. A second, smaller boot camp for women also is slated for elimination.

Buss said too many of today’s boot camp enrollees can’t read and have drug and alcohol problems.

In his testimony, he almost mocked boot-camp regimens, telling senators: “You can’t get help for your addiction by doing push-ups or sit-ups. You can’t get an education by marching.”

Corrections Maj. Michael Bellamy, 51, has worked at the Sumter boot camp since its inception, and says he’s most proud of the countless high school dropouts who have improved their learning skills.

“I see a kid come in here without a high school diploma or a GED, and I see the look on his face and his parents’ faces when they graduate,” Bellamy said.

Contrary to public perception, the prison population is not growing. But it’s not shrinking nearly fast enough to help cover the multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall that confronts Scott and legislators.

At least one inmate promises to save the state some money: Ward, the burglar-turned-boot camp graduate, says he’s not coming back.

At his graduation, classmates chose Ward to deliver the motivational speech. He thanked God, spoke of the value of an education and wished his classmates well.

“He’s OK,” family friend Velma Newmon of St. Petersburg said, wiping away tears. “He’s going to make it.”