Three weeks ago, 100 men lived in the dorms at Turning Point Bridge Community Release Center in Pompano Beach. During the day they held jobs serving food at local restaurants or building shipping pallets at a local plant. In the evenings, they worked on themselves, taking classes and preparing for better futures.
Then, from one day to the next, the dorms emptied. In the first two weeks of May, all 100 men went back to prison.
But not for committing a crime.
The heartbreaking moment when inmates boarded yellow buses at Turning Point Bridge to be shuttled from work-release back to state prisons represents the first blow of devastating budget cuts by the Florida Department of Corrections. The sweeping cuts targeted a variety of programs for inmates, including mental health treatment, transitional housing services, substance abuse services and re-entry centers.
Turning Point Bridge is one of 33 program providers across the state that will experience cuts.
“You just shut down everybody’s dreams," said Ian Pinkerton, a 24-year-old former inmate who graduated from Turning Point Bridge in April. "How can they do that?"
Pinkerton said programs like Turning Point Bridge give inmates hope and motivation to reintegrate into society in a way that prison alone doesn’t do. He said the cuts go against the FDC's mission. "They're supposed to correct something. Give someone a chance to be somebody in life,” he said.
In early May, Gov. Rick Scott signed a budget that left Florida prisons with a $28 million projected deficit for constitutionally mandated healthcare. In what she called a "last, but necessary resort," FDC Secretary Julie Jones made major cuts to mostly transitional programs to cover the gap.
"Since when is substance abuse treatment not healthcare?" challenged Rebecca Roberts of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association during a news conference at Turning Point Bridge on Tuesday.
The Florida Legislature has struggled to address what Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson called a "rampant opioid crisis." Every day, 16 people die of opioid overdose in Florida. Without the substance abuse programs for inmates, Kathleen Cannon, CEO of United Way Florida said, "They will come back out and continue their addictions."
The program cuts have already had a ripple effect into the large Pompano Beach community. Employers have struggled to fill gaps in schedules left when their work-release employees were suddenly sent back to prison.
"In one weekend we lost three of our best employees," said J.D. Danner, a manager at Pallet King, a local business that partnered with Turning Point Bridge to offer jobs to work-release inmates. She says the company got a phone call on Friday about the cuts, and by Monday, the men were gone. Pallet King had difficulty filling orders that week. "It doesn't affect just that one person," she said.
According to the FDC, about 25 percent of inmates return to prison within three years. But community-release and other transitional programs are known to reduce rates of recidivism. Only 12 percent of inmates who went to Turning Point Bridge returned to prison, according to James McClelland, chief operating officer of the parent organization Bridges International.
“With just a little bit of help, these people can make it. The human catastrophe that is happening is just heartbreaking," said Lori Costantino-Brown of Bridges International. Mark Fontaine, director of the Florida Behavioral Health Association, predicts 1,000 inmates will return to the community without access to transitional assistance or job training due to the cuts. And Cannon said the Broward Sheriff's Office foresees an increase in community crime rates as a result.
"You can't put a dollar amount on that. ," Cannon said.
"It is ridiculous," said Tom Griffin, founder and CEO of the Transition House, a local substance abuse center.
Turning Point Bridge opened in 1990, and every three years since it renewed its contract with the FDC. In those 28 years, thousands of inmates have passed through its doors, receiving training in job preparedness and other life skills. Then, on May 1, the program received a phone call. Its contract with the FDC was scheduled to end May 15. Only this time it would not be renewed. According to McClelland, the caller said the cuts were the reason for terminating the program.
"This is the first time in its history that it's been empty," said Costantino-Brown. "It's not fair to those individuals. It's not fair to the community."
Two dozen employees of Turning Point Bridge lost their jobs when the program closed. They are among the 116 employees who will be laid off at Bridges locations across the state due to the cuts, McClelland said.
The Florida Senate has opposed the proposed cuts, urging the House and governor to delay program closures until November when lawmakers could tap reserve funds. However, it takes only two out of three approvals (Senate, House, and governor) to uphold Jones' proposed cuts. The deadline to decide is Friday.