Prisons are booming business in Florida, with $2 billion in annual revenue and plans by the state Department of Corrections to increase the number of prisoners to more than 91,000 in 2005.
The department proposes to build a new 2,000-bed prison in Suwannee County, at a cost of $82.9 million, and to increase capacity at prisons in Columbia, Marion, Taylor, Wakulla and Union counties. The Suwannee facility would leave only four of Florida's 67 counties without a state prison.
"That's unbelievable," said the Rev. Jackie Means, the Episcopal Church's director for prison ministries. "We're just warehousing people by the thousands."
Means hopes a statewide gathering of prison ministry workers from all five Florida Episcopal dioceses in early April will help people serve those "invisible" prisoners in their own back yards.
"Episcopalians in every part of the state have the chance to do prison ministry, " she said.
They have their work cut out for them: Florida has the unfortunate distinction – along with California, Texas and New York – of having one of the four largest state prison systems. For many Floridians, that's no point of pride, nor is the grim sobriquet locals apply to U.S. 90, which snakes its way through rural North Florida: "Avenue of Incarceration."
A recent editorial in the Gainesville Sun sums it up: "A prison system that is within spitting distance of reaching 100,000 beds is a gigantic monument to Florida's failures. Recidivism rates in Florida's prisons are approaching 50 percent. Because the emphasis is on incarceration, rehabilitation is given short shrift. Of the nearly $50 a day spent housing an inmate, only about $1 is spent on education."
The Florida Prison Ministry Conference and Workshop will be held April 8-9, 2005 at the Holiday Inn Select, a few minutes north of the Orlando International Airport. The hosts will be the Diocese of Central Florida and Means' national prison ministries office.
Means will facilitate the gathering and share her perspectives on statewide and national ministry to people in prison, their families and their community. She hopes state prison ministry workers will explore ways of combining efforts to reach out more effectively to the incarcerated.
The following sessions are scheduled:
- Helping each other: Sharing Prison Ministry success stories from around Florida.
- "After Care" and re-entry of prisoners to society.
- The growing trend in faith-based prison units around the state.
- New opportunities for ministering to the prisons.
- Resources for accessing and providing faith-based programs.
- Growing your volunteer base and telling your story to the public.
- Ministering to jail and prison staff.
Scheduled speakers include:
The Rev. Bob Huguenin, of Crawfordville, Florida, a former warden at Riker's Island, New York. Huguenin was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood at Wakulla Correctional Institution, where he serves as a program manager.
Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy, the former notorious jewel thief, now a born-again Christian in Central Florida and a tireless worker for Christ's presence in prison.
Ike Griffin, founder of Winter Park, Fla.-based Horizon Inc., which helps populate and support faith-based dorms in prisons.
Rita Elkins, a consultant and expert in best practices for faith-based social-services programs.
Cleveland Bell, of Miami-based Riverside Christian Ministries, Inc. Riverside's services include housing for men and women, job placement, personal counseling, life-skills classes, spiritual development and a homeless program for men and women.