Clay Yarborough expects movement on prison reform issue in 2020
In prison, coronavirus finds a captive audience.

Yarborough has visited prisons throughout the state.

State Rep. Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville has done what many Duval politicians have done at one time or another.

He went to prison last (month).

However, unlike at least some of those past and present elected officials, the second-term Republican was there on a fact-finding mission.

Yarborough visited Miami’s Everglades Correctional Institute, a facility built in 1991 that houses 1,788 inmates.

Everglades deals with leaky windows during rain events, aged fleet vehicles, and other maintenance issues expected for a 30-year-old facility, but the Florida prison system has much worse, including some that Yarborough has visited.

“It’s in decent shape,” the Republican lawmaker said, compared to those he had seen in North Florida.

Everglades has a waiting list 10,000 deep, or more than 10% of the state prison population. There inmates tend to be older than the norm, and better-behaved, because of what Yarborough called “incentive-based programs.”

Private donations, Yarbrough said, funded a game room.

“The last two years, Everglades has seen the number of fights and violence go down,” he related. “You get sent back if you misbehave.”

Yarborough saw evidence of the prison’s older population as he toured the medical facility, where patients wait for treatment and medications.

“Some had more advanced needs than others,” he said.

And given costs system-wide related to issues like Hepatitis C and ADA requirements, where going cheap left the prison system exposed, it can be gleaned that warehousing aging inmates also imposes a cost burden on the facility.

Despite Everglades being the prison system’s equivalent of the honors dorm, Yarborough noted that some problems are universal.

One such: a preponderance of inexperienced guards. Nearly half of them have less than two years of experience.

“Retention is a challenge,” Yarborough said, and overtime and vacancies are issues at Everglades as they are everywhere else.

Help may be on the way. While Everglades is not on the first-wave of prisons where guards will move to 8.5-hour shifts from the current 12-hour stretches, all expectations are that will happen.

Yarborough notes that a legislative package is on the way, with Reps. Chris Sprowls and Paul Renner (the next two Speakers of the House) leading the way, along with Sen. Jeff Brandes in the other chamber.

The prison system faces a number of mounting challenges:

— Turnover rate of staff increased 150%.

— Officers with less than two years experience increased 67%.

— Inmate-on-inmate assaults increased by 67%.

— Inmate assaults on staff increased 46%.

— Contraband increased 484%.

— Inmate gang population increased 140%.

— Use of force (by guards) incidents increased by 54%.

— Correctional officer overtime increased 549% to backfill vacant positions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ proposed budget prioritizes corrections, adding more headcount there than in any other state agency.

The eight-hour shift pilot is a $29 million spend. And another $60 million would go to retention bonuses.

Whether Florida is ready to address other aspects of its decades-old experience with what critics call “mass incarceration” is unknown, as even reform-minded Republicans balk at certain proposals.

Renner, who will have a lot to say about the trajectory of process in prisons and criminal justice, cautions against altering sentences of longtime inmates.

Renner, the House Judiciary Chair, told the Tampa Bay Times not to expect laws to be changed “retroactively” to accommodate people convicted on drug laws that have been rewritten since their sentencing.

“I’m thankful (voters) gave us the opportunity to look at retroactivity but what they didn’t do is mandate it,” he said.

For someone who made “multiple drug deals,” such as a former pill dealer who got caught up in a sting (as TBT profiled previously), Renner adds that “at some point, there’s a consequence and punishment for that.”

Inmates with “sympathetic circumstances” should apply for clemency, Renner added.

That process can take a while.

The backlog is over 23,000, and the state Clemency Board (composed of the Governor and the Cabinet) meets every three months, reviewing a few dozen cases.

Likewise, Sen. Rob Bradley, the Senate Appropriations Chair, is not receptive to early-release proposals in his chamber.

“I would be interested in exploring more cost-effective ways to deal with the elderly prison population. Just letting them out is an approach that probably won’t gain a lot of traction in Tallahassee this session,” Bradley noted.

With proposals for “gain time” surfacing again from Democrats in the Legislature, which would make first-time non-violent offenders eligible for parole after serving 65% of their sentences, it’s clear that not every possible prison reform will happen.

But there is a general consensus that reforms are necessary and imperative.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]


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