At overcrowded Florida prisons, some inmates may just camp out
The state's plan to house some inmates in tents could save money, but it's drawing criticism.
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Ironically, it was that action, finally settled in the middle of the last decade, which seems to have led indirectly to Florida looking again at canvas for convicts. With the intention of avoiding similar challenges from prisoners about conditions in overcrowded jails, state lawmakers mandated that its prison system must always carry a cushion of spare bed space.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, with an inmate population rising by more than 5 percent in 2007, faster than in any other state according to recently released figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the corrections department under pressure to trim its $2.3 billion annual spending, Florida has turned to the $9,000 tents.
This time, says corrections spokesperson Gretl Plessinger, the department looked at all the legal issues surrounding their use and was satisfied.
"If our prison population spikes unexpectedly, or something happens such as a hurricane or other natural disaster, we might need to move our prisoners around quickly, and we have to have the capacity," says Ms. Plessinger.
"In other states you have inmates sleeping on floors in corridors because of overcrowding, but by law that cannot happen in Florida," she says. "That's why we have the tents, as options only if we need them."
The department also has four permanent dormitories under construction, which will add several hundred more bed spaces to the prison system within the next few months. But even that might not be enough to prevent Florida moving inmates into the tents.
"If the prison population keeps going up as projected, we will need the equivalent of 19 new prisons over the next five years," Plessinger says.
Florida's experiences with canvas will be watched closely by other states looking for a more permanent fix to their own problems in squaring growing prisoner numbers with shrinking budgets. In the past, tents have been favored elsewhere only as a short-term fix.
Arizona's tough example
Like the new Florida tents, there is no air conditioning and inmates swelter in summer temperatures often in excess of 100 degrees F.
"I'm starting to wonder about the symbolism because I can't figure out why they're doing this, it makes no sense," he says. "I suspect they're trying to save money every way they can, which is true in every way in this state, but I also think there might be more to it than that."