State Turns To Tents To Deal With Rising Inmate Numbers

The Associated Press

The $9,000 tents can each house up to 22 prisoners. So far, the state has set up 36 tents at work camps.

Some prison inmates in Florida – which locked up more new ones last year than any other state, according to a federal report released Thursday – soon could be living in tents.

Justice Department statistics show the overall Florida prison population increased by 5,250 inmates in 2007, the most recent numbers available, to bring the state’s total nearly to 100,000.

Those 5,250 new inmates are more than twice the number locked up last year by the next closest state, Kentucky, though Florida’s overall population is more than four times as big as Kentucky’s.

Florida prison officials began preparing for the influx of new inmates by setting up tents in March to house the potential overflow. So far, the state has set up 36 tents at work camps, where lower-risk inmates are housed.

The tents, which cost $9,000 each, are not yet being used. They can each house up to 22 prisoners. Florida has another 20 tents in reserve, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. The state also has some regular dorms under construction that will be ready by next month.

Housing prisoners in tents isn’t new. An Arizona sheriff became famous for a tent city jail he started in 1993. It now has about 50 Korean War tents the sheriff got free from the federal government to house 1,700 inmates.

The two state prison systems that are larger than Florida, California and Texas, do not use tents, though Texas did in the 1980s and California did so in the 1950s after an earthquake damaged a women’s prison.

New Jersey set up tents at one state facility for about 100 inmates in 1989, though they have since been taken down. It also began setting up large trailers in the 1980s to house inmates in a dormitory-style setting. The state still has 20 trailers, including one entire prison made up of them, said corrections spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer.

Florida’s 141 prison facilities are nearing capacity. Between 2000 and 2005, the state prison population increased by about 5 percent annually. In contrast, the other nine largest state prison systems in the nation grew at an average rate of 1 percent a year. Current Florida estimates put the state prison population at nearly 130,000 by some time in 2014.

Earlier this week, Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil told lawmakers that the state would need to build 19 new prisons in the next five years to house the surge of inmates. He estimated the cost at $1.9 billion, an amount nearly equal to the department’s current annual budget of approximately $2 billion.

McNeil told lawmakers Tuesday that they should think about re-evaluating sentencing policy, a “lock-em-up” approach that has ballooned the prison population. The state should also look at ways to reduce the number of people who leave prison only to return, McNeil said.

“The growth of our prison population underscores the need to prepare inmates to successfully enter our communities,” McNeil said in a news release Thursday. “Of our current inmate population, 46 percent of them have served time in Florida prisons in the past.”

McNeil said he is committed to reversing the trend.

The report released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2007” is done annually. It found that of the states, Kentucky took in the second-most new inmates last year, 2,457, while Arizona came in third with 1,945.

The federal prison population expanded by 6,572 to put it at slightly more than 200,000.



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