Jessie Lee W. Graham follows along in algebra class. College courses, such as the one at Columbia C.I., only reach a sliver of the general population in Florida prisons. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Wasted Minds

Inmates languish in Florida prisons with little access to education

Dade Correctional Institution employs one teacher for a population of 1,500 men — and just 16 inmates have earned GED diplomas there over the past four years.

Union Correctional Institution, a North Florida prison with a capacity of nearly 2,200, graduated only nine prisoners during that time.

Century Correctional Institution in the Panhandle went years on end without awarding a single educational certificate.

Prisons have instead emphasized warehousing, creating an environment where inmate idleness, surging staff turnover and a lack of incentives for good behavior have engendered violence.

“Education is so important in terms of trying to break cycles like poverty and jail sentences,” said Larry Ahern, a former Republican state representative from Pinellas County. “You can’t keep putting people behind bars and not do anything to help them on the inside.”

Nearly 55,000 offenders across Florida will walk out of state prisons during the next five years.

Many will be worse off than when they went in.

The nation’s third largest prison system offers virtually no meaningful education to inmates, despite overwhelming evidence that it is the strongest antidote to recidivism.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and parent company GateHouse Media spent six months examining the lack of educational opportunities within the Florida Department of Corrections.

Reporters filed a dozen public records requests with the agency for information on educational awards, violence and staffing during the past decade, then used those records to analyze programming in every Florida prison. Journalists scoured case files and zig-zagged across the state visiting prisons and interviewing more than 100 people, including inmates, lawmakers, justice officials and educators. 

Among the findings:

• Officials at the highest ranks of the prison system acknowledge the impact of education on reducing reoffender rates. Yet one in three state inmates reads below a sixth grade level, two in three lack a high school diploma and fewer are earning basic educational credits. During the past eight years, the number of inmates who completed GEDs in Florida prisons dropped by more than 60 percent.

• The department has shifted its focus to vocation, emphasizing industrial training for mechanics, plumbers and electricians. But many of the certificates are effectively useless. Inmates who graduated from carpentry classes say they can hardly swing a hammer and cannot find work in their trades upon release. 

• Tough-on-crime policies dating back to the 1990s have dismantled prison education. The state gutted inmate work programs, raided the budget for education to cover shortfalls, and redirected hundreds of millions of dollars generated from prisoners and their families into the state’s general fund — money once reserved for inmate programming. 

• The prison system is struggling to hire and retain staff. Several of Florida’s largest state prisons have no academic teachers — the top facility to prepare inmates for release went nine months without one. That’s because few want the job. The position requires a bachelor’s degree, despite a starting wage of less than $16 an hour. Competing public schools can offer safer working conditions and better pay. 

• As education evaporates — and inmates are left with more free time — institutions are getting more dangerous. Prison assaults doubled during the past decade, while inmate-on-staff violence swelled even more. The prisons where the most inmates graduated also were among the safest.

“Right now, we’re in a ‘punish and contain’ model,” said Michelle Jacobs, law professor and assistant director at the University of Florida’s Criminal Justice Center. “We’ve taken away all of the things — like education — that poor people need to sustain themselves and not reoffend. Without education, you’re pretty much ensuring they will come back.”

Although the state is not required to provide education services for inmates, many prison officials acknowledge the importance. Several wardens told a state Senate panel earlier this year that the state will either “pay now or pay later,” pointing to the financial strain when repeat offenders circle through the system.

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, named head of the agency as Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared to take office in January, denied interview requests from the Herald-Tribune. But in an 11-page statement emailed to the newspaper in July, he touted the existing programming, vowed to make inmate education more of a priority and pointed out a recent state funding increase to hire instructors.

“When I was appointed by Gov. DeSantis in January, I immediately recognized the need for additional educational and vocational programming,” Inch said in the statement. “We appreciate the support of the Legislature for adding 20 additional teaching positions for the upcoming fiscal year. These positions will allow us to expand inmate programming and increase the quality of teacher-led instruction.

“Providing programming to inmates and offenders is one of the strongest components in reducing recidivism and is also critical to the safe operation of our institutions.”  

But inmates and prison educators say the additional funding is not enough. They want more of the $2.4 billion it costs to run the Department of Corrections directed to inmate programming. Even tough-on-crime states like Alabama and Texas have been more proactive.

“It keeps me focused. It keeps me motivated. It keeps the hope alive that I can better myself,” said Roger Cassidy, an inmate at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, who is enrolled in one of Florida’s few college prison programs. “It creates the dynamic within the prison culture that others see. They’re like, ‘I want to do that. I want to be a part of that.’”

“It creates a positivity that just can’t be explained.”

• • •

Image of a man wearing a black hat and glasses.
Jason Fronczek spent nearly five years in state prison for burglary. Upon his release, he enrolled in community college, transferred to the University of Central Florida and earned his bachelor’s degree. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Jason Fronczek spent more than four years in state prison for burglarizing a neighbor’s house in 2005. 

During his time behind bars, the 46-year-old Navy veteran enrolled in a faith-based education program and worked as a teacher’s assistant.

Fronczek already had a GED, but many others at the institution could not read.

“It was something to see them struggle through it and just learn,” he said. “You could see the hope in their eyes.”

Prison education inspired Fronczek to continue with school upon his release. He enrolled in community college, transferred to the University of Central Florida and earned his bachelor’s degree. He’s now in the master’s program — on track to graduate next spring. He has not reoffended.

“When employers look at your record, and you have a felony, they’re less likely to hire you,” Fronczek said. “The only way to turn that around is education … it empowers people to do the right things.”

Close up of an inmate showing his id bade and silver cross necklace.
Brian V. Graham is enrolled in the Stetson University program at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Growing up in a single-parent household in the projects, Brian Graham never thought he would attend college. As a teenager, the Daytona Beach native became rebellious and began stealing cars. He’s been shot twice.

Close up of black male inmate Brian V. Graham.
Brian V. Graham is taking college courses at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. “I’m trying to squeeze the most out of this,” he said, “so I make sure I never come back.” [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Sentenced for a string of burglaries in 2012, he has a criminal history that includes grand theft of a motor vehicle, driving with a suspended license and battery. He left two children at home when he was given 17 years.

But in prison, education helped the 32-year-old find his way.

Graham finished his GED behind bars, obtained a masonry certification and enrolled in the Stetson University program at Tomoka Correctional, where he is taking college courses.

“I’m trying to squeeze the most out of this,” he said, “so I make sure I never come back.”

Experts point to inmates like Fronczek and Graham as examples of the power of education in prison. 

A study by Rand Corp. in 2013 found inmates who participated in educational programming had 43 percent lower odds of reoffending.

But in Florida, programs such as the one at the Tomoka prison only reach a sliver of the general population. Inmates within 50 months of release get first dibs on academic programming. Prisoners serving life may never get in.

Mugshot of a black male.
Lenord Williams

The prison system is “not designed to help you,” said Lenord Williams, who was released from Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown during April. “There is no hope in this place. I received no education — nothing to really help a person.”

The number of inmates who earned a GED in Florida prisons slid from nearly 3,000 in 2010 to just more than 1,100 last year. 

Those annual graduates equate to about 1 percent of the state prison system’s total population of more than 95,000.

Prison officials attributed the decline to national GED testing requirements, which became more stringent in 2014.

But Georgia, with about half as many inmates as Florida, confers nearly three times as many GEDs. And unlike its southern neighbor, the Peach State has seen a rise in the number of prisoners earning GEDs in recent years.

Even Texas does it better, awarding more than three times the number of prison GEDs than Florida last year, with a prison population some 50 percent larger. 

“The drop in GEDs is such a perfect indicator for how bad things have gotten,” said Karen Smith, secretary for the Gainesville chapter of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “It’s a problem for every prisoner. These people are going to be coming home — living next to you in your communities.”

Florida prisons have handed out even fewer high school diplomas — 800 during the past six years.

More than a third of inmates read below a sixth grade level. Those familiar with the problems say basic literacy courses are needed most. 

“We have a bunch of inmates who read at a third grade level or are effectively illiterate,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has championed criminal justice reform. “The system is so broken. … We don’t educate them or transition them back into society.”

Close up shot of a white male wearing a black blazer.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has pushed to reform Florida’s prison system. He says the state does not do enough to educate inmates or transition them back into society. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison in Raiford, said he would read letters aloud to an inmate who was illiterate. One day, he had to read a letter telling the prisoner that his mother had died. 

“Don’t you think the literacy program would have helped that guy?” McAndrew said. “It is so easy, so cheap, so good.”

Florida prisons administer the Adult Basic Education test to offenders when they arrive and again periodically to inmates enrolled in education. While roughly half of program participants made progress last year, they represent just a small fraction of prisoners. 

In 2018, only 3 percent of the overall prison population showed any improvement in math and reading.

Of those enrolled in education programs, just a quarter made learning gains on the Adult Basic Education test and less than half made strides on the GED.

Agency statistics often paint a different picture. In 2004, the prison system reported 87 percent of inmates completed a 100-hour life skills re-entry course proven to reduce recidivism. 

The numbers were seen as a major improvement, until nonpartisan government accountability analysts pointed out that the DOC had eliminated teachers for the course and instead gave inmates a workbook and showed them a video. 

“While the inmates are given the workbooks to read, many are not literate,” the report noted. 

An SUV exiting the entrance of a Florida state prison.
Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison in Raiford, said the state needs more basic literacy courses for inmates. [GATEHOUSE FLORIDA ARCHIVE]

• • •

The state has made a clear effort to shift its focus from general academics to industry training. 

As GEDs and high school diplomas fell, prisons began handing out thousands of vocational awards for various occupations, granting 14 times as many industry certifications to prisoners as they did a decade earlier. 

The idea was to better prepare inmates for release by giving them skills to work in the trades, which are struggling to meet hiring demands tied to Florida’s construction boom. 

But inmates and employers told the Herald-Tribune the credentials are effectively worthless.

Mugshot of a white male.
John Ramos

“I couldn’t build a cabinet to save my life,” said one former inmate who graduated as a cabinet maker and became a teacher’s aide in the program. “But on paper, I’m certified.”

John Ramos, an inmate at Polk Correctional Institution, said he spent his entire time in an automotive technology class doing bookwork. Then the course abruptly transitioned to marine technology — and the instructor quit.

“That class was a joke,” Ramos said. “The book we were given to study was (copyrighted) 15 years ago. We had no updated curriculum, and when the instructor brought this to the attention of (regional managers), they treated him like he was advocating for inmates.”

David Reutter, an inmate at Sumter Correctional Institution, said the largest motivator for inmates to enroll was to escape the sweltering dorms. 

Mugshot of a white male.
David Reutter

“You can sit in the air conditioning all day,” he said. 

The prison system offers industry certificates from six credentialing agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Florida Restaurant Association and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

But unlike industry certifications awarded at technical colleges, the prison programs do not have to be approved by the Florida Department of Education. Federal funding for vocational training flows through the DOE, but the agency does not control the curriculum, set requirements or establish hiring policies.

The DOE publishes its approved industry certifications each year. To make the list, programs must be nationally recognized and require at least 150 hours of instruction.

Some of the DOC’s programs meet those criteria, including construction-related programs through the National Center for Construction Education & Research.

But the majority of certificates offered through the prison system fall short of the DOE’s parameters.

A prison spokesman pointed to the manufacturing and safe food handling certifications offered to inmates. But the manufacturing award can be obtained without taking any actual classes, while the SafeStaff Food Handler certification takes about 30 minutes online. 

The Department of Education does not oversee any apprenticeship programs run through the prison system, which include classroom work and on-the-job instruction with a sponsored employer — the more traditional route for those interested in fields such as plumbing.

Many industry professionals scoff at the prison training. While they agree with the concept of teaching inmates a trade, they say offenders cannot adequately learn a skill like plumbing or cabinetry without proper hands-on experience. 

“Plumbing, AC or some of these other trades are such hands-on skills,” said Joel Sherman, a former criminal defense attorney who now runs a re-entry mentoring program in Tampa. “You have to be in a classroom where you can access certain things. They’re not going to bring 25 toilets in there. But you just can’t do it on a screen.”

Industry leaders who’ve worked with these graduating inmates say they have to start from the beginning once released, whether they took a plumbing course behind bars or not. 

Until a new reform this spring, Florida’s strict occupational licensing laws kept former inmates from working in many of these trades altogether. That’s because for decades, “good moral character” clauses allowed various industry boards to deny felons of a license over their prior criminal record.

“The problem is that these are not programs approved by the Department of Education, so when they walk out, they can’t get the proper certifications,” said Gloria Salazar, executive director of the Plumbing Contractors Association in Miami. “They don’t have the on-the-job training, so they have to start from scratch. They might know the books, but that’s a very small portion of what they need to learn.”

Inmates in a correctional institution's computer lab.
Inmates use the computer lab as part of the Second Chance Pell program at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

• • •

Craig A. Mrozowski was considered a model inmate. He was a good cook and followed instructions, so despite his 30-year sentence for assault and kidnapping, the Florida Department of Corrections let him work a normal job during the day. 

It was 1989, and Florida’s prisons were bursting at the seams. Work release centers, where inmates work a job in the community and sleep in a low-security facility at night, had become an easy way to deal with overcrowding. 

Mugshot of a white male.
Craig A. Mrozowski’s arrest mugshot. [MANATEE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE]

Mrozowski was on work release in Bradenton when he took a couple hostage. He shot the family dog, raped the woman and stole their car, driving to Tennessee. 

Weeks later, another work release inmate, Gilbert Diamond, was on his way to his job as a dishwasher when he broke into a home in West Bradenton, where he was accused of raping a woman. Diamond was acquitted by a jury on the rape charge. But a judge sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary, according to Herald-Tribune archives.

Mugshot of a white male.
Gilbert Diamond’s arrest mugshot. [MANATEE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE]

The two cases — just miles apart — sparked a national debate about the merits of such programs.

“Inmate is accused; furor is reignited,” proclaimed the New York Times headline, reporting that Florida’s work release programs were “unleashing criminals on innocent people.” A Herald-Tribune clip dubbed it “Legalized Escapes.”   

Cut out newspaper clippings.
Two work release escapes in Manatee County in 1989 sparked a national debate about the merits of such programs. [JOSH SALMAN / GATEHOUSE FLORIDA]

The state’s screening process was so lax that violent criminals were allowed to mingle with the public — a situation that inevitably led to the Bradenton rape, former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells said. 

“I swear to God, it was damn unbelievable,” Wells said.

Close up of Manatee County Sheriff
Former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells said the lax screening process for inmates on work release ruined the program for others. [GATEHOUSE FLORIDA ARCHIVE]

The benefits of a well-managed work release system are well researched. Inmates due for release are more likely to find a job, and the money they earn helps offset the cost of their incarceration. 

But instead of reforming the screening process to ensure inmates like Mrozowski weren’t allowed to participate, lawmakers essentially eliminated it altogether. 

In the mid-1980s, nearly 13 percent of Florida inmates participated in work release. Today, it’s just 1 percent. 

The state’s nonpartisan policy analyst urged lawmakers for an “aggressive increase” in access to the program in 2007. But the state continued its cuts, and the number of inmates at work release centers is just half what it was when the report came out. 

Last year alone, budget cuts meant inmates months away from release were forced to quit their jobs to be bused back to prison.

• • •

As Florida’s work release program withered, lawmakers eliminated one of the biggest incentives for inmates to participate in educational programs — the possibility of a sentence reduction.

When President Bill Clinton signed his crime bill in 1994, states that instituted so-called “Truth in Sentencing” policies became eligible for new federal grants. At the time, Florida’s prisons had become so crowded that nine out of 10 inmates were released early simply to clear up space in a cell. 

The new federal offer got the attention of Florida lawmakers, who responded by eliminating the possibility of parole in 1994, while passing a law the following year requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. 

No other state made such drastic changes. 

The legislation qualified Florida for $237 million in federal earmarks to build new prisons — and Florida now leads the nation when it comes to inmates serving their full sentence. 

Proponents for the tough-on-crime policies argue that they’ve reduced crime by keeping repeat offenders behind bars. But with no chance of getting a reduced sentence, inmates have less incentive to participate in education.

Florida shaves just 60 days off of an inmate’s sentence for earning a GED, high school diploma or technical training certificate. Prisoners can also build up credit for good behavior. But the 85 percent rule limits how many of those actual days an inmate can actually use. 

Some call it the biggest impediment to prison education in Florida. 

“Prisons are hard enough to run with a ton of incentives and programs,” said Len Engel, the director of policy and campaigns for the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute. “When (inmates) know they’re serving five more years no matter what, it doesn’t matter if they do something bad.”

Inmates in a prison classroom.
Stetson University professors teach college courses to inmates at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

• • •

Prior to 2003, proceeds from commissary sales and phone calls went into an “Inmate Welfare Trust Fund” that was supposed to be used for chapels, education and wellness programs. The account generated millions annually, providing a steady stream of revenue to pay for teachers and courses.

But too often, the money went to softball gear, televisions, junk food and weightlifting equipment. One former legislator said wardens even purchased pornography to placate inmates.

“The department used these activities to keep inmates occupied because it did not have enough work and education programs,” a 1996 state-issued report on the fund stated. 

Lawmakers and prison officials sparred annually over how much autonomy wardens should have over the money, which came almost entirely from inmates and their family members. 

Frustrated with the lack of control, Victor Crist, a former Republican state senator from Tampa, sponsored a bill in 2003 redirecting the revenue back into the state’s general coffers. Crist said his intent was to give lawmakers line-item control over how the money was spent — and eliminate purchases such as X-rated films.

“They were showing porno in the prisons,” Crist said. “We just wanted to fix the problem.”

But as the state struggled to meet federal standards, the funds never found their way back into educational programming.

An analysis by the Florida Senate in 2016 determined that the trust fund would have accrued roughly $45.5 million each year — or more than $227 million over the previous five years. That’s nearly equivalent to the total amount allocated toward inmate education during that time. 

From 2010 to 2013, commissary revenue would’ve surpassed the amount legislators spent on these programs by more than $26 million. 

Florida is one of just a handful of states without an inmate welfare trust fund, according to a 2013 survey of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. That speaks volumes to Paul Wright, a former inmate and founder of Prison Legal News, a magazine focused on criminal justice issues. 

Florida “doesn’t even pretend to have a prisoner trust fund,” Wright said. “Florida is just kind of out there when it comes to its punitive measures against prisoners.”

Crist said lawmakers should now re-establish the fund with strict parameters. 

“Reallocate it back to the programs, so they have their own independent funding source,” he said. “That’s the way it was intended to work.”

The additional funds could have softened the impact of budget cuts.

The DOC uses just 3.4 percent of its $2.4 billion budget on education. In June 2017, budget cuts forced the prison system to reduce the number of sites operating the online high school program.

And programming took the brunt of the hit last year when lawmakers underfunded the DOC by $50 million because of health care cost increases. 

The state inked a $375 million deal with health care provider Centurion of Florida — the only company to enter into negotiations. The provider is owned by Centene, a major donor to former Gov. Rick Scott, and their contract included a lucrative 11.5 percent administrative fee, an incentive that previous contractors had not received. 

To cover the new costs, the DOC took $28 million from programs focused on mental health, substance abuse and re-entry. 

Long-time DOC critics are particularly disturbed by the trend, given the troubled history of the agency.

“There has been a real dial back,” said David Richardson, a former Democratic state representative from Miami Beach, who would often arrive unannounced at prisons across the state during his time in office. “And that’s concerning knowing that education is important to rehabilitation.”

• • •

Looking over the shoulder of a white male inmate with a tattoo on his right arm as he learns algebra.
Jessie Lee W. Graham does coursework for college algebra. Programs such as the one at Columbia C.I. only reach a sliver of the general population in Florida prisons. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

Even prisons officials who want to offer more educational programs say they are constrained. There are not enough teachers to lead the courses.

Several state prisons have no full-time educators on staff. The largest re-entry center, which has a mission of preparing inmates for release, went about nine months without a GED teacher. 

The number of academic, special needs or vocational teachers on the payrolls declined 21 percent during the past decade, according to a GateHouse Media review.

Those do not count “vocational instructors” at prisons, which include such employees as food service coordinators, who help oversee inmates working in the kitchen and are not budgeted under inmate programming. The number of these “vocational instructors” fell 16 percent.

The prison teaching position requires a bachelor’s degree, despite an average salary of about $36,000 — or just more than $17 per hour. The job also demands additional certifications annually, which the teachers have to pay for, wardens said. 

For comparison, teachers at Sarasota County Public Schools average $59,880. 

Prison teachers’ starting pay is $15.67 per hour, just $1.41 per hour more than the average for a full-time worker at Walmart. They earn less than the agency’s probation officers, inspectors, administration and health care workers. 

Because of that, the staff is rife with turnover. Of the 205 teachers on the books in 2017, more than 40 percent were gone the next year. 

Fewer than 10 academic teachers remain from a decade ago.

“There is nothing we can do to retain our staff if we’re not at least competitive with our surrounding agencies,” Dade C.I. Warden Jose Colon told a Florida Senate panel in February. “We are literally losing the future of the Department of Corrections.” 

With traditional schools, experts say teacher turnover of around 25 percent is considered alarming. That also marks the DOC’s agency-wide turnover rate. The shuffling of the prison teaching staff was much higher.

The biggest losses came at Lancaster Correctional Institution, down from 25 teachers a decade ago to 8. Hamilton Correctional Institution cut its teaching payroll in half to just 5 teachers during that time, while Taylor Correctional is down from seven teachers to just one. 

Brevard Correctional — which gave out more GEDs than any other facility a decade ago and employed 21 teachers at the time — closed in 2011 for cost savings. Another 16 teaching jobs were lost when Indian River shuttered the following year. 

A prisons spokesman said employees at these sites were offered positions at neighboring institutions. The closings were part of a larger consolidation that eliminated 11 facilities and saved more than $130 million. But the teaching payroll never recovered. 

Paul Fillmore was a clerk with the prison system’s central office when officials learned of his background in web design. They decided to have him teach a course at Wakulla Correctional Institution in the Panhandle. 

With little budget for the program, the prison shipped 20 computers from another facility where a similar graphic design class had shut down. But nobody had the passwords, so instructors couldn’t use them. Fillmore, who never taught before, said he was left to set up the classroom and curriculum on his own. 

Many students lacked the basic computer skills needed for such a class. Others had no idea what program the prison had placed them in and had no specific desire to learn web design.

“It was just horrible,” Fillmore said. “There were a lot of challenges in leadership. … It was a lot of work for someone like me who didn’t know how to set up a classroom. It was definitely more stressful than it should’ve been.”

Many facilities are using inmates to lead classes and teach their peers, which has garnered mixed reviews from students. Even then, wardens said they need teachers on staff to oversee the programs and develop course plans.

There are more than 470 state inmates for each teacher employed by the department.

And for every teacher on the books, there are some 85 corrections officers. 

• • •

Barbed wire topped fence.
Razor wire tops the fences at Lowell Correctional Institution near Ocala. Lowell gave out fewer high school diplomas and GEDs per capita than the Homestead and Hernando correctional institutions, two others women’s prisons in Florida. Lowell also had more assaults than those other facilities. [GATEHOUSE FLORIDA ARCHIVE]

Florida’s approach has turned prisons into violent warehouses, where assaults are skyrocketing and the diminished staff faces increased danger.

Without educational opportunities, inmates have more free time and less incentive for good behavior. Coupled with the staffing woes, prisons are seeing a surge in violence. 

Assaults more than doubled during the past decade, with 5,763 reported incidents of inmate violence just last year. 

Inmate on staff assaults, which can include anything from spitting to stabbing, swelled at an ever higher rate. Brutality against corrections staffers grew 130 percent during the past four years alone.

During that time, use of force by correctional officers spiked another 85 percent, according to prison records.

Experts draw a clear correlation between the rise in violence and absence of education.

“If an inmate is busy, or occupied with something that interests them, they’re not going to get in trouble,” said Brandes, the state senator from St. Petersburg. “So how do we keep them occupied? Either through education or work.”

Inmates themselves point to education as a reason to stay out of trouble.

“It keeps you hungry,” said Jared Dougherty, who graduated in May from the Second Chance Pell program at the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex in Lake City. “The more you learn, the better you feel about yourself. … This really opens so many more doors.”

During the past three years, the Baker and Gadsden re-entry centers gave out more educational certifications per capita than any other correctional institutions in Florida by far, graduating hundreds from educational programs each year, despite a total inmate capacity of 432.

The two facilities were also among the safest. 

Just three institutions had fewer assaults per capita than Baker, while Gadsden had the state’s sixth fewest with just 8.5 assaults per 1,000 inmates during the past three years, according to a GateHouse Media analysis.

Baker and Gadsden are re-entry centers, reserved mostly for inmates preparing for life after prison, so those offenders may be less prone to violence anyway, knowing an assault could jeopardize their release. But experts say education was a factor too. 

In the Panhandle, Santa Rosa Correctional Institution averaged a whopping 224 assaults per 1,000 inmates over the past three years — topping the state. 

Just four traditional Florida prisons gave out fewer total educational credits than Santa Rosa during that time.

A prison spokeswoman said Santa Rosa C.I. houses mental health inmates and prisoners with some of the highest custody levels in the state — and that those with a history of violence cannot be placed in general population situations, such as a classroom. She said because each prison is so different, comparing these facilities to one another is flawed.

But the trend was even stronger among women’s prisons.

During the past three years, the Homestead and Hernando correctional institutions gave out more high school diplomas and GEDs per capita than other women’s prisons, including Lowell Correctional in Ocala, the Lowell Annex and the Florida Women’s Reception Center. Homestead and Hernando also had fewer assaults than those other facilities. 

Education “makes prisoners safer,” said Andrew Eisen, a history professor at Stetson University who helped bring college classes to Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. “If prisoners have things to do during the day, it can enrich their own human capacity.” 

A professor speaking to two inmates.
Stetson University professor Andrew Eisen tutors inmates at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Education Writers Association.

HOW WE DID IT: Reporters filed 12 public records requests with the Florida Department of Corrections for data on educational awards, violence, transfers and staffing during the past decade. The agency returned dozens of Excel spreadsheets and PDFs in varying formats. Journalists then converted the PDFs, reformatted all of the data to match and ran pivot tables on the spreadsheets, using the results to build a table of programming in every Florida prison. Journalists also pored through criminal cases and crossed Florida to visit prisons and interview sources. Anyone with questions about the reporting process or data analysis can contact Josh Salman at


Ryan McKinnon — Reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Josh Salman — Reporter and Editor, GateHouse Media
Thomas Bender — Photo and Video, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Jennifer F. A. Borresen — Data Visualizations Editor, GateHouse Media
Dak Le — News Engineering Manager, GateHouse Media
Michael Braga — Regional Investigations Editor, GateHouse Media
Emily Le Coz — National Data Editor, GateHouse Media
Kat Dow — Copy Editor, Sarasota Herald-Tribune