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.

Johnson Outdoors Gear/AP/File
Canvas accommodations: Modular tents like this will be used to house inmates in Florida.
Photo by Rob Schoenbaum/ZUMA Press/Newscom/File
Tent city: In the 1990s, Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio decided to build a new and cheaper jail using Korean War era, US Army surplus tents. The jail is for non-violent offenders. Bathroom and dining facilities are in a nearby building.

Florida's balmy winter temperatures have long been a draw for visitors eager to spend some time under canvas, sleeping on cots and enjoying the great outdoors. But a new plan to expose some of the state's inmates to the delights of year-round 'camping' has failed to evoke the same enthusiasm.

Faced with a budget deficit of $2.3 billion, Florida is saving money by buying giant tents to house prisoners at nine of its 137 facilities. With its prison population having passed 100,000 for the first time this month, corrections officials say that the hundreds of extra beds will also help address potential overcrowding problems.

The state isn't the first to try the idea. Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, and Hawaii are among those that have considered or used tents to better manage prison populations.

But Florida, with the third-largest corrections system in the country (after California and Texas) is the biggest and the first to try it on such a scale.

So far 36 tents, each able to house 22 inmates, have been set up at eight prison sites in north Florida, and one in the south, and the state has 20 more in reserve.

Walter McNeil, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, insists that the move is temporary and that the tents are "a precautionary measure" that he hopes not to have to use.

Prisoner advocates skeptical

However, his claims cut little ice with prisoners' advocates, who say that the state has taken a stride backwards by erecting the structures and that Florida's notoriously high summer temperatures will make conditions intolerable for those housed within.

"However many they build, they're going to fill them," says Bill Sheppard, a Jacksonville attorney who has represented inmates in numerous actions involving prisoners' rights and conditions.

"In August, in a tent, with the heat in Florida, your brain's going to boil, and that ain't a very good thing," Mr. Sheppard says. "They've tried this before, and were made to take the tents down, now they're trying it again and it will fail again."

"The technology of the type of tent may have changed, and the law may have changed, but it didn't work then and it won't work now," he says.

The US Supreme Court addressed the issue the last time that the Florida Department of Corrections used smaller tents to temporarily house inmates coming into the prison system before their assignment to a permanent facility.

Although not specifically mentioned in the justices' decision at the time, the tents were among a number of measures adopted by Florida to tackle overcrowding that were ruled unconstitutional in the 1977 Costello v. Wainwright case.

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.

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

One exception is in Maricopa County, Arizona, where hard-line Sheriff Joe Arpaio set up a notorious city of heavy canvas prison tents 15 years ago.

Like the new Florida tents, there is no air conditioning and inmates swelter in summer temperatures often in excess of 100 degrees F.

"Is this a signal that we're also really getting tough [with our prisoners]?" says Professor Gordon Bazemore, chair of the department of criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"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."

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