The 182 men living at the Bridges of America work release center in Pompano Beach are in prison but they spend their time getting ready to leave — taking classes in things like addiction education, anger management, forklift certification, computer basics, the ABCs of finance and getting out on work-release to hold a job.
It’s one of about 34 minimum-security “community release” centers operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, and one of the programs FDC Secretary Julie Jones has testified is critical to keeping former felons from returning to prison.
But last week the privately-run non-profit Bridges of America program was told it must close down by May 16. The reason: The state agency needs the office space.
The owners and supporters of the Broward-based center were stunned. The lease for the Pompano facility was up on May 16 and when the FDC issued its requests for proposals to renew the contract in March — at rates reduced from $52 a day to $56 a day — Bridges of America was the only one to respond.
But rather than follow through with contract, FDC last week reversed course and said it needed the facility to house its probation office, which is seeking new space.
“No action taken by this Department will negatively affect the future of the inmates currently incarcerated at Broward Bridge,” Jones said in a press release on Monday. “Opportunities will be made available for these individuals to continue in their journey to rehabilitation and successful transition into Florida’s communities.”
Owners and supporters of the non-profit organization are pushing back. They held a press conference Monday voicing their support for the program and urging community groups and legislators to tell FDC to keep it open.
“The facility has taught me everything I need to know about the disease of addiction,” Arthur Keene, a former inmate who attended the Bridges program, said at a press conference outside the Pompano facility. “It would be a great injustice if this place were to close down.”
William Meyer, who runs a transport company, said his two top employees are former Bridges clients who now have jobs and tell their story to others. “It’s going to be a real sad day because everybody deserves a second chance,” he said.
Lori Costantino-Brown, Bridges CEO, told the Herald/Times she believes the decision by the agency “just seems arbitrary.”
“The department has never mentioned this need for this kind of space. It has a number of properties in this area and could very easily put offices elsewhere. It’s not necessary for them to shut down a reentry center. That’s a very poor decision on the department’s part.”
Corrections officials have tried to negotiate. Costantino-Brown said they offered to give the company a six-month extension on its contract at its Bradenton facility, which expires in July, if they stopped contesting the Broward closing.
“The only offer we had from the department is contingent on us throwing out any claim on Broward,’’ she said. “Now we find ourselves in a precarious position in both centers.”
Costantino-Brown is now also prepared to go to court. Language tucked every year into the state budget requires the Department of Corrections to give 60-day notices to the governor and lawmakers when they repurpose a prison. That didn’t happen, and Costantino-Brown said she will ask a court to halt the closing because of it.
Jones said in her press release that her agency had no choice.
“Currently, FDC operates six probation offices in a single building complex in Lauderdale Lakes,” she wrote. “Earlier this year, the Department was notified by members of the Lauderdale Lakes City Council that an ordinance would be proposed which will re-zone the address at which our probation offices currently operate. This issue is one that the Department has faced time and time again in communities around our state.
“To overcome this obstacle and continue to provide services which are an operational imperative for this agency, the Department plans to relocate a portion of our probation offices, which serve more than 5,600 offenders, to the state-owned building currently occupied by Broward Bridge. A transition plan has been formulated which will ensure a smooth transition for work release, substance abuse treatment and probation services.”
This is the second time in four years that Bridges of America believes it has been singled out by the agency. The same two facilities were scheduled to close in 2012 when the then deficit-plagued corrections department attempted to close an estimated $79 million budget hole by shuttering two the reentry centers in Pompano Beach and Bradenton.
Costantino-Brown agreed to close some beds and make other concessions, and the facilities remain open. Then, as now, Costantino-Brown was a vocal critic of the need for reform in the state’s prison system. Supporters say she has been a successful advocate for civil justice movements seeking sentencing reform. Critics say she is motivated by efforts to privatize more state prison programs.
“Clearly, the repeated articles in the newspaper show a very troubled department,” she said. “I’m not sure why they’re doing the things that they’re doing. Corrections doesn’t historically value programs — they never have, regardless of what they publicly say. Their actions speak differently.”
Mary Ellen Klas: email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas