Faith-Based Efforts Good in Prisons by Claudio M. Perez

Posted: February 20, 2012 in News and politics

More than two years ago, the Collins Center sounded an alarm about Florida’s unsustainable prison system, then surpassing the 100,000 mark, and marshaled an unusual coalition of business, legal and faith-based interests to call for reform.

Those reforms included prison diversion for less serious offenses, and for those defendants with mental illness or addictions. But it also included a significantly greater focus on faith- and character-building, strengthening ties with families of inmates and creating communities around them who will help make sure their re-entry into society upon release is successful.

Sadly, our state prisons have made precious little progress in this regard. And the neglect is costly. As the Collins Center’s Smart Justice report notes, Florida ranks third in the nation in the share of state general revenue funds (10 percent) we spend on corrections. It further notes that, while the national average of state employees in the correctional workforce is 11 percent, in Florida it is 15.1 percent.

Despite all that investment of limited taxpayer dollars, the return is not good: More than 40 percent of men released from our prisons will offend again within three years and nearly 27 percent will be reincarcerated.

It’s a popular axiom to say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, if it is broke, if it’s been broke a long time and if the consequences of neglecting it further are disastrous, by all means fix it — no matter what it takes.

In this case, what it takes is the political will to stand up to the powerful union interests that are trying to defeat SB 2038, which would allow for private management of South Florida’s state prisons.

For the past 20 years, I have been involved as a board member and now the president and CEO of the South Florida Jail Ministries/Agape Network, directing a program that brings faith-based, character-building ministries into ­Miami-Dade’s six jails and drawing upon the volunteer services of 15 chaplains from every faith and denomination. I have seen lives transformed by the hope these ministries bring into defeated lives.

This work includes making sure the children and families of inmates are given opportunities to maintain strong and healthy ties that will serve them when they are reunited. That’s a critical ministry, given that 64 percent of mothers and 44 percent of fathers in state prisons lived with their children prior to incarceration.

It also ensures that inmates have connections to caring individuals in every type of church, temple and mosque who will support them when they return to the community.

As former Monroe County sheriff, prosecutor, judge and ordained Episcopal priest, J. Allison DeFoor II told The Miami Herald several years ago, faith-based programs at the Wakulla Correctional Institution reduced recidivism from 33 percent to 7 percent. Yet, thousands of inmates are on the waiting list for these vital services.

It is clear to me that these programs would have a greater opportunity to flourish in privately run state prisons. On top of that, the privatization bill is estimated to save the state at least $20 million a year, money that can be spent on education, drug treatment, treatment for mental illness, and other investments that can keep inmates from returning to our prisons again and again.

Let’s finally embrace reforms that ensure they will be good neighbors and contributing members of society.

[ Claudio M. Perez of Miami is president and CEO of South Florida Jail Ministries/AGAPE Family Ministries/AGAPE Network. ]

Copyright © 2012   — All rights reserved.  Restricted use only.

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