Experts say grassroots efforts like those at Desoto C.I. in Arcadia are crucial to addressing the lack of inmate education in Florida prisons. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

“Extreme paradigm shift”

Proposals call for more Florida prison programming

ARCADIA — Florida lawmakers have proposed spending millions of dollars to expand access to inmate education following a Herald-Tribune and USA TODAY Network investigation.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested increasing the prison system’s education budget by 20% next year, with the goal of ensuring every institution in the state has at least one academic teacher.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas, also has filed legislation reinstating the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, which would steer the proceeds from commissary sales and inmate phone calls toward more rehabilitative programming.

The two measures follow a four-part investigation in July from the Herald-Tribune and USA Today Network that revealed several prisons in Florida offer no educational opportunities for inmates, despite decades of research showing it’s one of the strongest antidotes to re-offending.

The “Wasted Minds” investigation also has helped to inspire more grassroots efforts across the state.

One literacy program at Desoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia has helped to change the culture of the once violent prison.

“There was a lot of money (proposed) to deal with inmate idleness,” Brandes said. “We know also education and job skills are among the No. 1 things that help with recidivism.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas, has filed a bill to reinstate the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, which would steer proceeds from commissary sales and inmate phone calls toward more rehabilitative programming. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

The additional funding for prison education is part of a proposal by DeSantis to increase the Department of Corrections’ annual budget by $115 million, the largest increase of any state agency.

The majority of the new spending will go toward hiring more guards, but the governor also is calling for $6.6 million to increase the educational budget, bringing the total allocation up to $39.6 million next year. The money would hire additional teachers and wellness coordinators, who oversee the recreational yards.

Brandes said the state is looking at a more comprehensive plan for prison facilities and education, which may mean moving programs from one prison to another, and trying to bridge the pay gap between teachers at prisons and public schools.

The prison system also increased teacher payrolls by 20 new positions under last fiscal year’s budget in July, but because of the meager pay and rural location of the prison facilities, the state is still struggling to fill those jobs, Brandes said.

His proposal to reinstating the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund would further bolster funding for the programs.

Lawmakers eliminated the trust fund in 2003 over frustration that wardens were using the money to buy recreational equipment. The “Wasted Minds” investigation demonstrated how that decision crippled educational opportunities for inmates in Florida.

Florida is one of the few states not using commissary revenue on rehabilitative services. A 2016 effort to revive the fund found it would’ve accumulated more than $227 million over the previous five years — nearly matching the total that lawmakers allocated toward inmate education during the same period.

Brad Drake, R-Bay, has filed a companion bill in the House that would re-establish the fund, but limit annual contribution to $10 million.

• • •

When Gregory White first entered prison in the 1990s, the 23-year-old from Hillsborough County could not read or write.

For years, he shuffled through the pages of the same dusty mobster book, struggling to make sense of the letters, until another inmate noticed and taught him the basics.

Serving life at Desoto Correctional Institution, White has since learned Spanish, French, Creole and Hebrew.

“I personally believe the main reason why so many people chose to go that route, in terms of crime, is because we could not read and write,” said White, serving life for burglary and aggravated battery. “We were not part of a functional society.”

More than a third of inmates in Florida read below a sixth grade level. Many are illiterate.

At a prison once marred by violence and brutality, White is among a small group of inmates who have changed the culture on the compound.

They volunteer in the library tutoring other prisoners, and even started a book club to share and discuss novels. Prisoners say the “Book ‘Em” reading program gives them a new sense of self-worth. They can see the world from inside concrete walls.

portrait photo of Jesse Solomon
Jesse Solomon, a tutor for the literacy program at Desoto C.I., says education in prison gives inmates a new sense of self-worth. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

“Prison can be prison — or it can be Harvard,” inmate Jesse Solomon said. “People start to feel like they have value — their opinions do matter. Their expressions and thoughts do matter.”

Through an anonymous donation to the Sarasota nonprofit Project 180, the group helped organize a book drive in September to donate a free new book for every prisoner at Desoto CI who signed up. They handed out books to more than 600 inmates.

“It was something special,” said Denaldo Forbes, one of the inmate tutors. “Now, everyone wants to be a part of it … It’s an extreme paradigm shift.”

One inmate, Daniel Tennity, used the concepts from tutoring to develop chance games that simulate the NFL and NASCAR. The dice games — which teach inmates reading, math and critical thinking — are taking off throughout the Desoto compound.

Portrait photo of Daniel Tennity
Daniel Tennity used the concepts from tutoring to develop chance games that simulate the NFL and NASCAR. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Experts say grassroots efforts like those at Desoto C.I. are crucial to addressing the lack of inmate education in Florida prisons. Many inmates go right from the literacy program onto GED and other courses.

“I don’t just want to teach them to read, I want to teach them to become readers – to turn them into a different person, not just because they can read, but because of what they’ve read,” said Judy Gee, a retired pension lawyer who drives weekly from Sarasota to Arcadia to coordinate and volunteer at the literacy group.

“When you read something, it becomes a piece of you,” she said. “That’s what most of these guys are missing.”

Gee would now like to bring a similar initiative to other prisons in Florida. She’s also hopes Florida authors — like Carl Hiaasen or Stephen King — will donate their books for the cause.

“We are going to do it again and again and again,” Gee said, “until this place is flooded with books.”

Group photo tutors.
Judy Gee, a retired pension lawyer, helps lead a group of tutors at the Desoto C.I. Annex. Gee drives from Sarasota to Arcadia every week to volunteer at the prison. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

• • •

Even local jails see the power of education.

In Manatee County, inmates at “Rick’s Ranch” learn welding, automotive repair, animal breeding and manufacturing skills. The sprawling farm, named for current Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells, gives inmates the chance to grasp a trade, while they provide a service to the jail’s operations.

Inmates serve a maximum of one year in jail, so there is not as much time to educate them compared to state institutions. But “Rick’s Ranch” puts inmates in charge of repairing equipment, sewing uniforms, growing food and building furniture.

“I don’t care if I have an inmate who is only going to be in there six months,” Wells said. “We’ll get them started.”

Wells said the ranch keeps inmates busy and exposes them to a skill — the first step toward finding employment when they get out. Some inmates also earn certifications.

Inmate Stephen Glass waters poinsettias grown as part of the Leading Inmates to Future Employment (L.I.F.E.) program at the Manatee County Jail. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Green Forest Industries, a custom molding manufacturer in Palmetto, has hired inmates from the ranch to work in its shop, where employees start at $13 an hour, plus benefits, a retirement plan and paid vacation.

“They call us when they have an individual who is going to be finishing their sentence,” said Nikita Vance, the company’s vice president of operations. “We will take people who have the training.”

Experts say Rick’s Ranch can serve as a model for how an inmate welfare trust fund can be put to use. The program is funded through the Manatee County Jail’s commissary revenue, which brings in roughly $700,000 per year.

If Brandes’ efforts to re-establish an inmate welfare trust fund succeed, wardens in Florida may have millions more to use toward similar rehabilitative and educational services.

“If I was the warden of a prisoner here in Florida, I’d be thinking how I could give them the tools necessary to succeed when they get out,” Wells said. “They have to be programs that offer life skills that (inmates) can actually use once they are released.”

PHOTO GALLERY: See more photos of Rick’s Ranch.