Florida's Children Impacted by Prison Population Surge

By Leon Fooksman

With the inmate population in Florida’s prisons climbing above the 100,000 mark in 2009 for the first time ever, that means as many as 200,000 children are growing up without a parent’s support, experts say.

The recent surge in imprisonment, fueled by a changes in policy approaches and sentencing mandates, has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from education, health care and scores of other state social programs. But child advocates say the impact has been even greater on children of incarcerated parents who suffer deep and lasting emotional effects from the separation from their loved ones.

And the prison expansion shows no immediate signs of halting, According to the "One in 100: Behind Bars in 2008" study by the Pew Charitable Trust, "Without a change of direction, Florida is expected to reach a peak of nearly 125,000 inmates by 2013. Based on that projection, the state will run out of prison capacity by early 2009 and will need to add another 16,500 beds to keep pace."

This expansion is evident by the 1,000-bed addition to the women-only Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala in the past two years. “It’s that many more moms away from their homes,” said Shellie Solomon, project director of The Service Network For Children of Inmates, which has taken dozens of children to visit their mothers at Lowell Correctional Institute.

Children of the incarcerated are seven times more likely than other children to be involved in the criminal justice system, according to Vicki Lopez Lukis, vice chair of the Florida Department of Corrections Re-Entry Advisory Council. Many children lack family bonds to keep them from drifting into petty crime and drug abuse.

“So it’s important we recognize that every time we incarcerate a parent, particularly a mother, her children become more likely to enter into the system,” Lukis said.

April Young, vice president for criminal justice initiatives at the Collins Center for Public Policy in Florida, describes one neighborhood hearing in which a story was told of a little girl who commonly refers to her daddy as "living in the telephone."

"He was an incarcerated parent and the only time she had any interaction with him was via telephone, so that was her perception of where he lived," Young said. "We understand the critical nature of efforts to keep ties strong between incarcerated parents and their children.”

Studies have found that locking away parents and other inmates has done little to protect the public, which pays $2 billion a year to fund the corrections system in Florida. A third of those released from prison commit crimes within three years after incarceration, experts say. Once they reach the five-year mark, 65 percent commit crimes.

In June, a group calling itself the Coalition for Smart Justice and composed of business, academic, religious, social-service and law-enforcement leaders issued a letter to legislators warning that the spike in the prison population is creating a vicious cycle crippling education, job development, environment and other programs.

The math alone is staggering:
  • The costs of Florida's prison system is projected to grow by at least another $1 billion over the next decade.
  • Each new 1,300 bed prison in Florida costs about $100 million.
  • The average cost of keeping an inmate in prison is over $20,000 per year.
  • Drug rehab and other non-prison programs can be operated at roughly one-fifth the costs of housing an inmate. By bolstering the state's drug courts to handle non-violent offenders, lawmakers this year put off $300 million in additional prison construction.
As a result, prison reform advocates are making a push to divert non-violent offenders out of the prison system into cheaper, more community-based programs focusing on drug treatment, job training, education, and mental health counseling. These efforts are intended to get inmates closer to their homes where they can maintain family and social ties and avoid falling back into criminal behavior. Nearly half of the inmates in Florida are imprisoned for non-violent crimes linked to drug addiction and mental illness, officials say. Statistics show that each inmate, on average, has two children.

“Keeping them close to home not only makes it easier for the family to visit, and keep those ties intact, but it’s also easier for the inmate to get contacts ready upon release for issues like child-care,” Lukis said.

The reform proposals, though, are hitting countervailing trends in Florida's justice system that experts say weaken family ties and make recidivism more likely for many incarcerated parents. Prisons in Florida are far away from urban centers, which make it extremely difficult for programs designed to maintain or reunite incarcerated parents with their children.

Even more threatening is a Florida law that went into effect in July allowing the state to ship inmates to state-run or private prisons in other states. The law has been vocally opposed by both the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil in part because it undermines the goal of reducing recidivism and building familial ties.

As the state correctional system gobbles up more money to build prisons to house ill-educated, addicted and abused inmates, the cycle will continue breaking apart families in communities where strong parental figures are needed most, said Solomon, who is also the chief executive officer of Justice & Security Strategies in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

“You know these kids will be suffering and without action, the cycle continuing,” Solomon said.

Leon Fooksman is a journalist who writes for The Service Network For Children of Inmates. He can be reached at leon@astorytellingcompany.com

** The Service Network of Children of Inmates has commissioned journalists to research and write articles pertaining to issues facing children of the incarcerated.