K.C. Walpole: More prisons, more jails?

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 4:21 p.m.

The thought of a second state prison in northeast Gainesville on 39th Avenue terrifies local elected officials. It highlights a dysfunctional education system as well as a community addiction to illegal drugs.

These are issues that elected officials and members of the criminal justice community are not prepared to handle in public. The starting point of both issues comes from a simple profile of the inmate population.

Over 60 percent of all felony convictions involve illegal drugs or drug incited crimes. For the last three years, drug crimes were the largest category of prison admissions in Florida.

Yes, that means we send more men, women and children to prison for drug crimes than for violent felonies.

Young men and women under the age of 25 years represent 28 percent of prison admissions. In Florida, the average education level of the inmate population is the sixth grade. The uneducated youth who leave prison have a recidivism rate of 68 percent.

The number of men, women and children sent to prison in Alachua County has more than doubled in the last decade; from 304 in 1996 to 751 in 2006. The percentage of statewide commitments to prison grew from 1.3 percent to 2 percent in the same period.

More than 1,500 men, women and children from Alachua County are now incarcerated. They would fill the second prison yet to be built on 39th Avenue. Alachua County should be able to fill a third state prison in short order, given the continued growth of inmates sent to the state prison system,

In addition, the county jail population floats around 1,000 inmates, and a jail annex is under construction to relieve overcrowding and provide for growth.

This means Alachua County is facilitating the incarceration of over 2,500 men, women and children in state and county facilities. This equates to an annual incarceration rate of over 1,000 per 100,000 Alachua County residents.

This is a rate higher than the state of Florida as a whole, which is higher than the national average. All three are higher than any other country on Godís green Earth.

Makes one wonder how Canada is able to survive as a democracy with an incarceration rate of 110 per 100,000 populations.

You would think our streets and homes would be safe with so many in prison. But for the last 20 or so years Florida has had one of the highest violent felony rates in the nation.

The men, women and children going to prison are the uneducated foot soldiers of the drug trade. When they are arrested, they are harvested of their profits, first by the criminal justice community that processes them, then by the bail bondsmen that get them temporary freedom and finally by the trial lawyers who defend them.

These are facts known to every elected official.

However, it is a system that produces the necessary votes, endorsements, and campaign contributions from the criminal justice community.

The question is, why are we not doing something about the dysfunctional education system and illegal drug use that generates so many prison admissions and ruins so many young lives?

K.C. Walpole is the director of the prison program for the Gateless Gate Zen Center, a Gainesville group that works with inmates.

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