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PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article re rehabilitation in the Florida DOC

Star-Banner, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article re rehabilitation in the Florida DOC - Star-Banner 2007

Article published May 23, 2007

DOC looks to cut back recidivism
Basic teaching, treating mental illness will be focus



TALLAHASSEE - The state's prisons chief said Tuesday he wants to help inmates stay out of prison once they're released, with a new emphasis on teaching them and treating mental health and drug issues.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough said Tuesday he hopes to reduce the rate of recidivism - the level of released inmates who return to prison - from a current rate of about 32 percent to 20 percent or less.

He hopes to get there with renewed emphasis on substance abuse treatment, education efforts and vocational training.

McDonough said more than 90 percent of the state's inmates will be released at some point and that preparing them for life in the real world made good ethical and business sense.

"I see this first and foremost as an anti-crime measure," he said. "Public safety is the primary focus. With that, of course, comes tremendous savings."

He said it costs about $100 million to build a new prison that holds about 2,000 inmates. With 3,000 inmates released every month, reducing the recidivism rate could mean 5,000 to 6,000 fewer inmates a year and hundreds of millions of dollars saved.

But McDonough will have to work with a tight budget. Lawmakers provided some extra money this year to allow substance abuse treatment for about 10 percent more inmates, but that's not enough to help a system where most inmates have a substance abuse or mental illness problem.

Similarly, McDonough faces tough work in education. He said the average education level of an inmate is about sixth grade and that more than 4,000 inmates read at a first- or second-grade level.

He hoped to work on helping those with the lowest levels, saying increased ability to read and communicate makes a return to prison a little less likely.

"We're not talking about getting them master's degrees," he said. "We're talking about basic reading."

McDonough also promised an emphasis on mental health treatment and vocational training, especially efforts to prepare inmates to obtain construction jobs when released.

McDonough said "society has made a shift" back to investing energy in helping inmates rather than investing money in more prisons.

Not everyone is sold on the plan. Paul Wright is the editor of Prison Legal News. He served 17 years in Washington state prison.

He said the national effort to rehabilitate inmates means little if states don't spend money to support the changes.

"So far this is just rhetoric. They don't put the money there," Wright said.

He added that simple things, such as making it easier for families to visit and call incarcerated loved ones, would reduce recidivism.

McDonough said there wasn't much additional money to support his changes, saying he would work with what he's got.