An Inside Perspective
Part 1 – Twenty-one calendar years and counting. Two decades, plus. This is how much time I’ve spent in Florida prisons. Half my life. Nothing to brag about, obviously, but if I’m an expert on anything, it’s life behind the fence.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed the dysfunction, the mismanagement, the abuse. I’ve seen correctional officers frustrated by the lack of a pay raise (eight years and counting), I’ve seen the revolving door of DOC Secretaries hired, fired, one even indicted, and nearly all of them blamed for their failure to fix a corrupt and broken system that is poisoned at its roots.
Name changes, logo changes, slogan changes, and policy changes in response to beatings, murders, federal investigations, riots, and embarrassing headlines. I’ve watched it all go down from my bunk. And not just as an observer. I’ve personally been sprayed with gas, spent marathon stretches in solitary confinement, been stripped of my clothing, slept on steel, and had family members removed from my approved visitation list, all as creatively cruel forms of punishment for relatively minor rule infractions. And while it would be easy to blame the guards for their brutal and inhumane treatment, I don’t. They are merely bit players in a culture of hate. It’s their training that’s to blame.
The same us vs. them mentality that has fostered incidents in Oakland, Charleston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Baton Rouge and Dallas is bearing fruit behind the razor wire, too. Only without the camera phones.
Maybe it’s naïve to want safe prisons. Even the term safe prison feels like an oxymoron. But here’s the thing: unsafe prisons are not only unsafe for prisoners and DOC employees. They’re also unsafe for the communities these broken men and women will eventually return to.
Florida is at a unique juncture in history. The state can either double down on the systemic nosedive of the last twenty-five years, and continue being guided by the same narrow voices, or choose a different direction: The path of humanity, respect, kindness.
When I was arrested 12 years ago, after already serving a 10-year sentence, I was miserable. But all throughout the process in courtrooms, on transport vans, and in prison reception centers, my mind kept returning to the same existential questions: Is this my destiny? Crackhead? Armed robber? Is this the universe’s plan for me? There has to be a deeper meaning, a reason for all of this. There was. There is. And as proud as I am of my novels, it has nothing to do with books. At this stage, I have a master’s degree in prison life. I’ve been living it since I was 18. My experience in the DOC makes me uniquely qualified to address reform. This is my destiny.
I know I may be shouting into a hurricane. But as Senator Cory Booker put it, “cynicism is the refuge of cowards.” There is no point in spotlighting problems without offering solutions. So over the next few posts I want to give an insider’s view of some of the problems that plague the Florida DOC and outline suggestions on how to fix them.
Part 2 – Gangs, drugs, stabbings, extortion, rapes, lewd and lascivious acts committed by inmates toward female officers — this is the reality of Florida prisons today. And while there is no one cause that can be singled out for this unraveling, a major contributing factor is the S.T.O.P. Act.
In 1995, Charlie “Chaingang Charlie” Crist — best known among conservatives for hugging President Obama and best known among Floridians for his shocking party flip-flop in the 2014 gubernatorial elections — authored a law called S.T.O.P. (Stop Turning Out Prisoners) which mandates that every prisoner serve at least 85 percent of his or her sentence. Riding the wave of tough-on-crime rhetoric that was the No. 1 song among politicians of both parties in the early 90s, the Florida Legislature pounced on this proposed law, and with a few strokes of the pen, the Sunshine State cast its lot with warehousing over rehabilitation.
Things were glorious at first. New ground was broken, new prisons popped up all along the I-10 corridor, and suffering rural economies were suddenly infused with state paychecks and the promise of government pensions.
But within a few years, the building craze slowed to a halt as new catch phrases and buzzwords swarmed the Capitol. Terms like fiscal responsibility and government waste. Budgets were soon slashed. For inmates this meant that in addition to serving 85 percent of their sentences, there would now be less food, less soap, less toilet paper, and worse living conditions. For correctional officers this meant less carrot and more stick.
Abuse by staff has always been a reality in the Florida D.O.C. but the years from 2004 to 2014 were an especially brutal era. For every murder and beating that made it to the media, there were hundreds of others never reported. Inmates on confinement wings were being sprayed with gas and being stomped like insects, sometimes for insubordination and disrespect, but many times in retaliation for merely utilizing the grievance procedure. This iron-fisted, rule-by-force-of-fear approach was generally effective in the same way I imagine the North Korean government is effective at keeping the Pyongyang rabble at bay. But over the last few years, the Florida D.O.C. has shed over 1,000 employees, the officer turnover rate has increased by 50 percent, and half of the department’s correctional officers have fewer than three years’ experience. As a consequence of these dwindling numbers, the animals – once abused and shell-shocked into obedience – no longer fear the zookeepers.
So while it’s easy to shrug off prisons as violent and unsafe places by definition, there’s a reason why the nation’s third largest penal system is the hopeless and dangerous powder keg it is today, and much of it can be traced directly back to Chaingang Charlie Crist’s S.T.O.P. Law. No incentive to transcend, no real motivation to better oneself. This is where we are.
While there is no overnight cure to undo a quarter-century of dysfunction, tension, and a complete lack of humanity, a good start would be to repeal this Draconian law, trim the prison population, close down excess facilities, and use the money saved to invest in programs that will turn out educated, empathetic, computer literate men and women. Of course, the union will scream over the lost jobs, but this isn’t the auto industry or some textile plant. These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, citizens. And does Florida really want to continue down this dark road of commodifying human beings for job creation? We’re better than that.
Part 3 – I’m writing this from my “house” which is really just a bunk surrounded by 84 other bunks in a cinder block warehouse. This is just half of one dorm. There are eight more dorms just like it here in the prison where I live, and eight more at the prison next door. And eight more in the prison down the road. There are three prisons in this county, and at least one in every county in Florida.
Everything I own in this world is stored in the footlocker beneath my bunk: a radio, oatmeal, peanuts, a bag of instant coffee, plus numerous books and letters from people who love me. I’m extremely fortunate in this respect. Others are not so lucky.
The only way a Florida prisoner can receive money is if someone sends it to him from the outside. This means that two-thirds of the men in my dorm are unable to buy a postage stamp or a stick of deodorant, much less a cheeseburger from the inmate canteen. Their diet is limited to the trays served daily in the chow hall, where portion sizes and food quality have diminished over the past twenty years due to budget cuts. Most supplement this with whatever they can hustle or steal.
Get the violins out, right? Who gives a damn about a bunch of hungry criminals? Especially those who have burned so many bridges that not a single soul on earth would send a $20 money order, or even accept a collect phone call. But there are collateral consequences to this. Namely, a volatile caste system of haves and have-nots, where men are sometimes stabbed over ramen noodle soup.
How did we arrive at these red line conditions?
Twenty-five years ago, each Florida prison had a business office that ran the canteens. Products were bought wholesale – many times from local vendors – then sold to inmates with money on their accounts. Profits went to the Inmate Welfare Fund and were used to buy basketballs, footballs, softball equipment, weights, movies, musical instruments. One particularly humane use of this fund was to give every inmate in the Florida D.O.C. $5 on Christmas morning. This was a huge deal for indigent prisoners in the early 90s. But it wouldn’t last.
The ensuing years saw the Inmate Welfare Fund disintegrate intermittently. The Christmas program was discontinued after 1993, Recreation Department budgets were axed in favor of donations, and canteens were first centralized then outsourced to the lowest bidder: Keefe Corporation. Today an inmate can buy an MP3 player with thousands of songs, JVC headphones, Nike tennis shoes, chicken sandwiches, jalapeno pretzels, Irish Spring soap, IF he is fortunate enough to have someone on the outside sending money. For thousands of inmates in the Florida D.O.C. – many of them from impoverished backgrounds and serving life sentences – this is not the case.
The only way these men and women can ever hope to wear a decent pair of shoes or listen to a radio or eat canteen food is to rob, steal, exploit or extort. I’m not justifying the behavior of thugs, I’m merely pointing out the current state of affairs. I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines. Life is becoming increasingly dangerous in Florida’s understaffed prisons, for inmates as well as correctional officers.
There is an easy solution to make them safer at no cost to taxpayers.
For almost two decades, companies like Keefe and Trinity have made billions of dollars peddling their wares to prisoners at gouge-level prices. Part of their future contracts should be to give a small percentage back. The Florida D.O.C. could then set up a program where indigent inmates receive pay for their institutional jobs. Even a nickel per hour would be something. That’s 40 cents a day, $2 a week, $8 a month. Eight dollars equals a bag of coffee and a few soups. A couple months’ paychecks would be enough for a transistor radio; a huge incentive, a reason to behave, a little dignity and hope for men and women with nothing. Of course, any disciplinary report would forfeit that month’s pay, so it would be a management tool for officers as well.
This is not some liberal entitlement idea. It’s good business for companies to invest in the communities that are the lifeblood of their profits. For far too long, prison profiteers have reaped the benefits of selling their merchandise at exorbitant prices to people who have absolutely no leverage. It’s not like we can threaten to take our business elsewhere. The real customers of corporations like Keefe are not men and women behind bars but the family members in society who send us money. Investing in safe prisons is the very least these companies could do. A pay program for indigent inmates would be a good start.
Part 4 – I’m not sure who was behind the flyer. Some prisoners’ rights advocacy group, maybe. I saw it only once back in June when it was passed around my dorm. It stated that on Friday, September 9, there was going to be a peaceful sit-down by prisoners everywhere in protest of inhumane treatment. I didn’t take it very seriously. There is no unity in Florida prisons. We’re too divided by race, gangs, dope, and our own individual hardships to come together for anything.
There was zero chance of this happening, especially on any grand scale. But apparently the Florida D.O.C. saw it as a legitimate threat and formed a stratagem to quell the potential disturbance.
Their plan was brilliant in its simplicity. A week before the date of the proposed peaceful sit-down an “enhanced menu” was posted on the chow hall door: sausage biscuits, cheese grits and hash browns for breakfast; B-B-Q chicken and mac & cheese for lunch; hot dogs, baked beans, and cake for dinner. All to be served on Friday, September 9.
A sit-down is exactly what it sounds like: you sit down. No work, no rec, no canteen, no chow hall. As I said before, this had no chance of happening in the first place. But if there was any doubt, the “enhanced menu” sealed it. For tens of thousands of indigent prisoners the promise of decent food and a full belly was too difficult to pass up.
If you’ve read Part Two of this series, you already know about Charlie Christ’s S.T.O.P. Act which mandates that every prisoner serve 85 percent of his or her sentence. I suppose the effectiveness of this War-On-Drugs-era law could be considered debatable depending on where one lines up across the political spectrum. Food is a different story.
Florida prisons are largely self-sustaining ecosystems where maintenance, grounds keeping, laundry, janitorial, and kitchen duties are all handled by inmates. Some of these require 8-hour shifts and 40-hour workweeks. And the work performed by prisoners is not restricted to duties inside the fence. Every work camp and road prison in the state has a D.O.T., public works, and forestry squad. These men and women provide free labor on Florida’s highways, parks, and government buildings. To not compensate the nations third largest incarcerated workforce with an equitable amount of gain time seems soviet — the federal system actually pays its inmates — but the bare minimum should be food. Food is energy.
I’m not sure which is more telling – that Florida inmates would sell their souls for a hot dog or that prison officials know this and use it as a management tool.
Part 5 – I have a friend who struggles with depression. She’s had a rough decade. In 2007 she was in a horrific car accident that killed her husband and left her with numerous broken bones, as well as two young children to raise alone. When a highly addictive painkiller finally ran out, heroin filled the gap and in 2012, she found herself in a women’s correctional facility serving three years.
As happens with many Americans struggling with depression, the doctor recommended Prozac and this, coupled with meditation and exercise, allowed her to begin to put her life back together. A pivotal part of her plan was work release, a program that allows nonviolent inmates to work in society during the final year of incarceration. With an 8- and 10-year-old at home already down one parent, she would be starting all over with nothing and needed to save some money. But in the end, she was denied entry into the work release program because she was prescribed a mood stabilizing drug which raised her psych level within the prison system. Once she became aware of this, she attempted to refuse her medication but it was too late. So a year later, she was released from a maximum security prison with nothing but a Greyhound bus ticket and a $50 check. So long, farewell, we’ll leave a light on for you.
Question: How many of your co-workers are on Zoloft, Celexa, or Prozac? I would guess that a substantial chunk of the American workforce is on some type of SSRI or MAO inhibitor.
I’m sure the Florida Department of Corrections’ intentions are well meaning. Nobody wants a bunch of Thorazine-soaked, shuffling, criminal psych patients drooling over the deep fryer at the local KFC. But there’s an obvious difference between a violent offender on anti-psychotic meds and a single mother struggling with depression.
This lazy, one-size-fits-all policy is a contributor to the recidivism cycle and only hurts the same society it is trying to protect. In addition to the beatings and gassings that have been showing up in the news over the last few years, this is yet another example of the department’s ineptitude regarding the mentally ill population. A complete overhaul is in order.
By the way, the girl? She’s kicking ass out there, despite the odds.
Part 6 – Look, I admit it. I’m about as technologically dumb as a person can be. My toddler nieces and nephews are far more computer savvy than I am. Since I’ve been in prison for 12 years, I could say that this situation is by force not by choice, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. I chose to commit the crimes that landed me in an archaic and draconian correctional system which is stuck in a perpetual state of 1989 and can’t seem to find its way into the millennium. Cause and effect. Nobody’s fault but mine.
So I’m probably the wrong guy to tackle this issue. For me, writing about computers is akin to writing science fiction. Not my genre. However, I also may be the perfect guy to tackle this issue since my own digital ignorance is a key example of the problem. I’ll give it my best shot.
A few weeks ago I transferred from one prison to another and as I lugged my three mesh bags stuffed with over a decade’s worth of letters, pictures, books, and magazines on and off buses, through strip searches, metal detectors, and holding cages, I longed for something I’ve never seen before: A space-age gadget that exists, for me, only in TV commercials… I longed for a tablet.
Imagine, a modernized correctional system where every offender receives one of these amazing little gizmos on the first day of incarceration (with no ability to surf the internet, of course. Sadly, there are too many predators in prison for that). But still, a person could email and text approved friends and family instead of relying on an antiquated phone system that charges over $2 per call. One could also store pictures, subscribe to magazines, download books, take classes, learn to type, research case law, and more or less become a citizen of the 21st century. These are just a few of the benefits.
But if you don’t have a loved one in prison, why should you care? One reason is the education factor. Numerous studies have shown that an educated person is less likely to commit crimes than one who is uneducated. Lifers make up only a small percentage of the prison population. Most of us will rejoin society one day. The more educated we are, the more employable we become. Education breeds empathy which makes us less prone to steal your car or break into your home. This also makes us less prone to return to prison, which in turn lightens the burden on the taxpayer.
Emails could take the place of phone calls, or at least provide an alternative. Because of the Florida Department of Corrections’ stringent regulations limiting approved phone numbers to land lines and contract cell phones only, many prisoners have lost touch with loved ones. Emails could reestablish connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. The vast reaching upside of familial support cannot be overstated, nor can its healing properties be quantified.
Tablets would also make prisons safer and pose less of a security threat than the status quo. Things like dope, shanks, and cell phones can be concealed in excessive property, i.e. stacks of mail, legal work, and accumulated books. A tablet would be harder to hide. Also, there would be a digital trail of everything sent and received, this makes sense from a security standpoint.
At the institutional level, all grievances, requests, appeals and sign-ups could be filed electronically. Appointments with classification, dental, medical, and mental health departments could be done with notifications. This upgrade in infrastructure alone is a substantial step in the direction of the modern world as it would demand a rudimentary degree of computer literacy for the offender.
As with any complete overhaul there are logistics to consider. Over a hundred thousand tablets, plus tech support as well as transitioning from the current model of two mail room employees poring over incoming and outgoing mail to some sort of centralized cyber security team would require money. But other prison systems have already made the move with great success. Why not Florida?
On every dormitory wall in every prison throughout the state is a motto mandated by the current secretary of the department of corrections: “Inspiring success by transforming one life at a time.” A noble vision. Modernizing the system would lay the framework to make this vision a reality.
Part 7 – No discussion on fixing the broken prison system would be complete without addressing the problem of gunning. Problem is actually an understatement. Epidemic is closer to reality. But before I get started, a quick disclaimer: If you’re easily offended, you may want to skip this one.
Remember the movie Silence of the Lambs? You know the part where Clarice goes to visit Hannibal for the first time in that institution for the criminally insane? Remember the disgusting dude in the adjacent cell as she was leaving? Yeah… Gunning.
In short, gunning is public masturbation and it is rampant in Florida prisons. Any time any female works any dorm in the state, you can bank on at least a few inmates – sometimes as many as fifteen – peeking around corners while playing with themselves, whacking off at the sinks, some even boldly exposing their genitalia at the officer station window.
You would think these predators are sex offenders but they’re not. Not registered, at least. Most of the sex offenders in my dorm are docile little spindly child molester types who are either glued to their bunks reading fantasy novels or hiding out in the chapel. Gunners are in prison for dope dealing, carjacking, robbing. Righteous criminals who ironically look down their noses at sex offenders.
The etymology of the term gunning comes from the word gunslinger, a reference to the outlaws in the Old West who were quick with their pistols. Over the last 25 years in the Florida Department of Corrections, I’ve witnessed the gunning phenomenon grow from a few fringe predators to some weird fad to the red-line epidemic it is today.
As a heterosexual male serving a lengthy prison sentence, I understand need. The body is designed to do certain things and sex is one of them. There’s no getting around it. But come on, man. Handle your business in private. Maybe this strange side effect of forced and prolonged celibacy is a slightly less severe example of the scandal that rocked the Catholic church a few years back. There are consequences for going against nature.
A decade ago, prison officials had a zero-tolerance policy regarding gunning. In addition to the 60 days in confinement for obscene acts, gunners were also prosecuted in a court of law. For some reason, this has stopped. The Florida D.O.C. should revisit this policy and explore other options as well, such as pink jumpsuits and segregation dorms as both consequence and deterrent for this disrespectful and disgusting compulsion.
Why should you care? Because these men are being released every day. Instead of returning to their communities reformed – or at least unchanged – they are returning as predators. A strict policy by prison officials would not only protect female employees, but also help to reverse this tide of perversion before it starts showing up in restaurants and grocery stores. Seriously.
Part 8 – Summer is coming. For 90 percent of Florida prisoners this is bad news. It means six months of stifling, oppressive, wall-sweating heat. Of damp mats, slick floors, and fly-swarmed bathrooms. Of screeching guards on blaring intercoms: “Get your shirts on now!” Of hotbox, cinder-block warehouse dormitories filled to capacity, powder-keg conditions, 75 men in a sardine can, seething with tension from the record-setting heat. That part in the Bible about “a great weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Welcome to my hood.
During the height of the prison building craze in the 80s and 90s, when politicians one-upped each other to appear toughest on crime, air conditioning was regarded as an amenity, cushy and unnecessary.
But by 2007, someone in Tallahassee must have realized that climate control is not just a comfort issue or even a hygiene issue, it’s a health issue. Things like staph, scabies, and mold thrive in dank, sweltering conditions. So over the last ten years, the handful of newer facilities that have been built are equipped with AC. Unfortunately, the 50-plus major institutions that house the bulk of the state’s inmate population were constructed prior to the millennium.
A few years ago, a newspaper columnist from my hometown wrote an article about how inhumane it was for the local animal shelter not to have air conditioning. I totally agree. Animals are some of the most vulnerable members of society and they have no voice to speak up for themselves. But it’s ironic that the living conditions of human beings don’t receive at least comparable attention.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals.” I think the same can be said for how a nation treats its prisoners. Incarceration is its own punishment. Losing one’s freedom, one’s family, one’s rights, one’s privacy, one’s dignity is crushing enough as it is. The state need not seek out bonus cruelties such as utilizing the heat index to exact retribution for crimes.
Shortly after the animal shelter article, there was a fundraiser. Donations poured in and today, the dogs and cats of Escambia County’s puppy pound have air conditioning. But for 90,000 prisoners in the nation’s third largest prison system – and one of the hottest states in the U.S. – the heat goes on.