K.C. Walpole: Culture of incarceration


Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 at 12:48 a.m.

The history of Florida politics has always involved a model of a subjugated/oppressed population used for financial and political exploitation. This is not just a political reality; it is based on a culture that permeates the entire state.

This culture found expression nationally in movies such as “Gideon's Trumpet” and “Cool Hand Luke.” Both speak with great eloquence to the legal matrix that supports and benefits from a culture of exploitation.

The backbone that breathes life into this culture of subjugation/exploitation is the criminal justice industrial complex of the state.

The most recent revision to this model of subjugation/exploitation was triggered by the presidential elections of 1988. Crime became one of the single biggest campaign issues. The poster boy for everything wrong was Willie Horton.

Horton was a convicted felon who failed to return to a Massachusetts prison in 1987 while on a weekend furlough. He went on a drug-related crime spree that included an incident where he twice raped a woman after beating her fiance.

This issue of being tough on crime was first used by Al Gore's campaign against Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in the Democratic primaries with little success. However, the Bush campaign was able to exploit it with great success in their bid for the presidency.

The significance of being tough on crime was not lost on the Florida Legislature. In October 1988, immediately prior to the elections in November, the first in a series of legislation was passed in what became the “get tough on crime” era that would span over a decade.

On Oct. 1, 1988, the Legislature passed the Felony Habitual Offender and Violent Habitual Offender which spoke to the issues surrounding Willie Horton. Essentially it said that felons with two prior convictions or one prior violent offense would be sentenced outside the existing guidelines to longer prison terms with less gain time and no early release.

This and like legislation triggered a surge in the inmate population and prison construction. From 1992 to 1994 the state spent $450 million on prison construction which was more than the state's university system had received in the previous 10 years.

This pattern of spending did not stop with the immediate surge in prison construction. A little over a decade later, E. T. York, chancellor emeritus of the State University System, pointed out Florida's spending priorities on the national level ranked, fifth place in spending on police protection; 40th place in spending for K-12 education; and 50th place in spending for higher education.

The old plantation economy has been replaced by the prison economy and all but three counties in the state of Florida have at least one.

Realize that a state prison represents a stable income of about $13 million to a county. This is a source of economic stability to rural agricultural counties at the mercy of the marketplace and weather.

Counties have gone to great extremes to attract and keep a prison. The Suwannee County Commission was one such county.

Among other incentives, the commission bought a 320-acre site for $375,000, gave it to the state and in return Suwannee got their prison.

This may sound like chump change but on a state level there are over 27,000 Department of Correction employees and the budget is close to $2.5 billion.

The prison system is one of the biggest employers in many counties as well as the state. We are talking jobs created by and tied to politics.

Florida now has a prison system that incarcerates over 100,000 men, women and children. Make no mistake; there are children in Florida prisons. Florida prosecutors are sending as many children into prison as the rest of the United States.

There is not a politician in the state who doesn't realize the economic impact closing prisons has on their careers and the rural economies of the state.

Now the infrastructure is in place, and politicians can shift their focus from construction to tweaking the system to keep the system operational and the beds full.

The single biggest contributor to this equation is a dysfunctional education system. We only have to look to Alachua County for a case in point. The county sends approximately 600 men, women and children into prison every year with an average educational level of the sixth grade. Alachua schools have a dropout rate between 400 and 500 men and women a year. With a state recidivism rate of some 40 percent, it does not take a rocket scientist to make a connection.

Many will argue this is the price of freedom in a democracy. The world incarceration rate average is about 125 per 100,000 population, while the American rate is 751 per 100,000. Bear in mind, Florida has an incarceration rate much higher than the national average.

What has been said here is known to every elected official in the state. In spite of the rhetoric and showmanship the system has only been refined over the last 20 plus years.

K.C. Walpole, of Gainesville, participates in the prison outreach program for the Gateless Gate Zen Center.

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