Inmate Patrick H. Paige uses the computers during a class at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. While black inmates outnumber whites by about 6,700 in Florida prisons, there were 6,600 more white inmates who earned GEDs, high school diplomas or vocational training certificates during the past decade. [THOMAS BENDER / HERALD-TRIBUNE]

“Institutional racism”

Fewer black inmates graduate from prison education programs

Racial bias poisons every step of Florida’s criminal justice system.

Police target black drivers for pretextual traffic stops, leading to a disproportionate number booked for drugs and other nonviolent offenses. Prosecutors aggressively seek sentence enhancements and additional time for priors. Judges are more likely to sign off on longer prison terms than whites for the same crimes under similar circumstances. 

It’s no different behind bars.

Although a disproportionate number of state inmates are black, white prisoners are nearly 40 percent more likely to graduate from some form of educational programming while incarcerated, according to a GateHouse Media analysis of public prison data.

Without equal access to education, black inmates have fewer opportunities to turn their lives around — making it harder for them to find jobs upon release — and increasing the likelihood that they will spiral back into the criminal justice system as repeat offenders. 

“I can think of no reason why that would be happening but institutional racism,” said Derek Byrd, a Sarasota criminal defense attorney. “There should be no reason for it. It’s disappointing.”

There are more than 45,000 black inmates in Florida prisons — 47 percent the system’s total population and the largest racial cohort. 

But while black inmates outnumber whites by about 6,700 in Florida prisons, there were 6,600 more white inmates who earned GEDs, high school diplomas or vocational training certificates during the past decade.

Experts attribute the disparities to longer prison sentences, cultural differences and prejudicial policies. 

The implications intensify in a state where tens of thousands of inmates compete for GED programs that graduated just 1,100 last year. 

“It’s perverse,” said Michelle Jacobs, law professor and assistant director at the University of Florida’s Criminal Justice Center. “It gets back to the issue of whether these bodies that are locked up are worth anything to us as a society.”

• • •

During the past five years, 116 inmates earned a GED or high school diploma at Walton Correctional Institution in the Panhandle.

Just 28 were black.

Avon Park Correctional Institution in Central Florida helped another 77 prisoners with high school equivalency during that same time.

A mere 22 were black.

At Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, more than 100 inmates graduated from GED or high school programs.

Only 31 were black.

“These tangible skills can alter the arc of a person’s life,” said Gordon Weekes, executive chief assistant public defender in Broward County. “There’s no rational reason a program that addresses education, substance abuse or any other form of betterment should have disparate impacts based on race. … It’s very troubling, and it needs to be addressed immediately.”

Image of Black male in suit, arms crossed.
Gordon Weekes, executive chief assistant public defender in Broward County, was disturbed by the racial disparities in prison education. “It needs to be addressed immediately,” he said. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and GateHouse Media spent six months investigating the educational shortfalls for state inmates and the impact on recidivism. 

A study by Rand Corp. in 2013 found inmates who participated in educational programming were 43 percent less likely to reoffend. But in Florida, these courses only reach a small number. State prisons are granting GEDs and high school diplomas to fewer inmates than in the past. 

Experts say the state’s approach contributes to the over-representation of black men in prison. By allowing more classroom seats to go to whites, prison educators are putting minorities at further disadvantage, all but assuring they’ll return — and exacerbating the disparities in the system. 

“The layers all work together,” said Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. “Who’s watching the ship? It should matter to all Floridians because, in this case, it directly impacts public safety.”

“It’s about meeting the promise of corrections,” she said. “This has been a department of warehousing for too long … the whole process needs to be looked at.”

A prisons spokeswoman said the agency does not discriminate against any age, race or religion. 

“An individual’s race has absolutely no factor in determining access to education program opportunities,” the agency said in an email statement. “Multiple factors affect whether students graduate from programs. Access to educational programs is needs-based. Inmates with lower skill and/or education levels are prioritized above inmates who have higher skill and/or education levels.

“With limited program seats, FDC targets inmates closer to release to ensure that those most in need are afforded the opportunity to participate in programs.”

• • •

In December 2016, the Herald-Tribune published “Bias on the bench.” The four-part series showed how judges throughout Florida sentence black defendants to harsher punishments than whites charged with the same crimes under similar circumstances, using millions of records in two state databases that track offenders. 

In some communities, black defendants convicted of crimes such as felony drug possession or armed robbery face up to triple the time in prison.

The ripple effect can be seen behind bars. 

With invariably longer sentences, education is out of reach for many black inmates.

Although prison officials say there is no restriction based on sentence length, inmates within 50 months of release get first consideration for academic program placement. 

That means white inmates — serving shorter sentences on average throughout Florida — can skip to the front of the line. 

Portrait of white female in black blazer, in front of United States flag.
Laura Bedard, a former warden and deputy secretary of the DOC, who is now chief of corrections with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, was surprised by the disparities in inmate education. [PROVIDED PHOTO]

Several inmates and former prison employees said they do not believe wardens are picking who gets education based on skin color — or blatantly prohibiting black offenders from participating.

“That surprises me a lot,” said Laura Bedard, a former warden and deputy secretary of the DOC, who is now chief of corrections with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “Regardless of race, all inmates have the opportunity.”

But giving priority to inmates closer to release allows bias to seep through. 

If four white inmates serving two years and one black inmate with six years left all apply for a GED course at the same time, the four white inmates will all likely get in before the black prisoner.

During the past decade, more than 57 percent of prisoners to earn education behind bars had a sentence length of five years or less, according to a GateHouse Media analysis.

Conversely, just 6.6 percent were serving sentences longer than 20 years.

“There’s a real need for education in prison,” said LaShanna Tyson, a former state inmate who now volunteers to help women offenders learn life skills. “In 13 years, I could have earned two doctorate degrees.”

“Educating the mind is the only way to take you out of that place you’ve always known,” she said. “And for me, that was the projects. That was my life growing up. Education is the key to getting out of that.”

• • •

Image of black male, in a suit, in front of decorative wall
Mitchell Brown, a former inmate in Florida’s prison system for more than 36 years, said culture was major factor for the racial disparities in inmate education. He said black inmates were more likely to band together over sports. [PROVIDED PHOTO]

Mitchell Brown, a former inmate who was incarcerated in Florida for more than 36 years, said culture was a major factor for the disparities.

He said black inmates were more likely to band together, while whites were more likely to stay isolated. Educational courses offered isolated inmates a source of community, while black inmates tended to congregate over sports.

“More blacks spend their time out there on the basketball court, playing flag football, and all this other damn stuff that has nothing to do with advancing yourself,” said Brown, who is black and now works with inmates on decision-making.

Paul Wright, a former inmate and the editor of the Prison Legal News magazine, also said inmates cluster into racial groups — some prioritizing classes, others working jobs in the kitchen and many spending their days on the rec yard.

“There are definitely different values in different cultures placed on learning,” Wright said. 

With rules forcing inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence, there is little incentive in Florida for prisoners to enroll in education to expedite their release. Some believe that has a discriminatory impact on black offenders. 

Experts point to prison violence and gang affiliation — which can preclude prisoners from academic participation — as other reasons fewer minorities are getting help.

The largest gangs within Florida’s prisons are primarily populated by black and Hispanic inmates, with the Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples having the strongest membership, according to an Office of Inspector General report from 2013.

Inmates known to be involved in gang activity are not allowed to participate in education. 

But inmates and advocates say even prisoners who have long since disassociated themselves from gang life still struggle to get in. 

And once a prisoner has been flagged as a gangster, it is nearly impossible for them to shake free of the label, said Bedard, the former DOC deputy secretary.

Inmates would need to remove tattoos, snitch on another gang member or cooperate with law enforcement. Few if any would take those drastic and dangerous steps, Bedard said. 

Ricky Dixon, the DOC’s deputy secretary of institutions, denied in March that the agency forbids former gang members from access to education. 

“Behavior associated with a certain gang may prevent them getting access,” Dixon said before a crowd at Stetson University, “but not the membership itself.”

But Denise Rock, executive director of the prisoner advocacy nonprofit Florida Cares, said she often works with middle-aged inmates who’ve not been involved in gang activity for years but still cannot enroll in classes due to their outdated classification.

“They never get out of that system,” Rock said. 

• • •

The prejudice in prison education mirrors other betterment programs offered throughout the criminal justice system.

A Herald-Tribune investigation in 2017 found more of the beds in substance abuse programs offered to offenders in lieu of prison are reserved for whites. 

In Manatee County — once the epicenter of the opioid crisis — blacks represented 23 percent of all felony drug convictions in 2016 but just 3 percent of rehab admissions, prison records show.

Black offenders also are less likely to be given second-chance opportunities like drug court, a rigorous program that enables defendants to get help with their addictions and keep clean records. 

Instead, black offenders face harsh penalties and prolonged punishments — like drug-free zone enhancements — just for living closer to churches and parks.

But some experts say the bias in prison education may be the most detrimental of all. 

Many black offenders already face an academic disadvantage from their schooling as youth. Without the tools to improve their lives as adults, they’re more likely to revert to old criminal habits — leading to longer sentences down the line and feeding the vicious cycle of incarceration.

“It’s a human right to have education,” said Keri Watson, who heads the Florida Prison Education Project at the University of Central Florida. “Incarceration is about dehumanization. The really important thing to me is for people to get to feel their humanity.”