When officials at a privately run women’s prison in North Florida needed to sell tickets to the local heart association fundraiser, they went to the closest captive audience they knew.
If inmates and their families bought tickets or made contributions to the annual event at the Gadsden Correctional Facility, they’d be rewarded with pizza parties, ice cream socials or a gourmet meal.
But when the promised pizza never arrived after the 2016 Heart Walk event, one inmate complained to a friend, who alerted Rep. David Richardson, the Miami Beach Democrat and forensic auditor who has conducted his own investigations of Florida’s troubled prison system.
Richardson asked the state’s Chief Inspector General to investigate: Did the money ever get to the charity? Were inmates and their families strong-armed into making contributions? Did the promised pizza parties and gourmet meals ever get to the inmates? Was the offered trade an approved policy and if, so, why?
The CIG office took the case in May and in October determined that the Gadsden prison was doing nothing wrong. They found the flier advertising the Heart Walk rules, which promised, “If you or your family donates in cash you will be invited to the following: $25.00 ice cream social, $75.00 pizza social, $100 T-shirt that must be sent home, $250.00 culinary meal.”
Now, Richardson is demanding an end to the charity for pizza events at the state’s largest privately run women’s prison, saying that the activities — even if popular — are an inappropriate attempt at forcing contributions from potentially unwilling donors.
“My concerns are not intended to demean the good work being done by any of the charities benefiting from these activities but rather the manner in which the fundraising occurs,” he wrote to Department of Management Services Secretary Erin Rock this week. It is common for businesses to have fundraisers for charity, “but it is customary for funds to be raised from employees and others who make their decisions freely, and without the promise of a reward in exchange for their contribution.”
Auditors interviewed 21 inmates who had donated the most money and concluded the fundraisers were wildly popular, the report said. The fundraising tradition had been going on for more than a decade at the prison, run by Management Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, and which currently houses 1,219 medium-security inmates.
Auditors said they could find no record of complaints from family members, prison staff or inmates — and they could find no one to corroborate that the payments had to be made in cash.
The auditors did note that there were no formal policies authorizing the fundraisers, or audit trails regarding the money. The funds were collected from family members and from inmate accounts, according to the prison’s accountant. One inmate had $1,000 deducted from her financial account for a check paid to the American Heart Association, according to the audit.
The annual American Heart Association Heart Walk at the Gadsden prison was one of the annual fundraisers held in 2016 and or early 2017 that the report said raised $151,051 from inmates. Others included the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics, the Gretna Elementary School Adopt-A-School program and a Christmas Wishes fundraiser.
The prison kept track of the money taken from the inmate accounts that went to the charities, but it did not keep track of how much of that money was outright contribution, and how much went into purchases of items like trail mix and hygiene items, also sold at the fundraisers.
Todd Kuntz, regional director of the American Heart Association in the Tallahassee area, told auditors the money from the Gadsden prison Heart Walk made up 40 percent of the association’s annual goal. He confirmed that money was received from both inmates and inmates’ family or friends. Kuntz also told auditors he has “reached out to other state correctional facilities, but has been unsuccessful with getting them to participate in the Heart Walk.”
Then there was the issue of the prized pizzas and meals. Auditors found that the promised “gourmet” meal for the three teams deemed the winners of the 2016 Heart Walk didn’t get their meal until April 2017, after Richardson had received the complaint. The menu: pork chops, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and a dessert. The auditors couldn’t verify if the pizza and ice cream parties occurred. The local Domino’s Pizza reported that although it has been associated with fundraisers at the prison for at least 13 years, it only provided pizzas for the Christmas Wishes event in 2016.
Richardson is not happy about the audit or the response from the Department of Management Services, which is charged with regulating private prisons. After months of trying to get them to understand the inherent conflict when prison officials entice inmates into making donations in exchange for favors, he got silence in return. In response to the audit, MTC created a formal policy at the prison, authorizing the fundraisers with permission.
Last month, Richardson met with Rock and urged her to ban the policy. After receiving no response, Richardson went public with the case this week and wrote Rock asking for change.
“There are 50 full-scale correctional facilities in the state of Florida, and many other facilities that are focused on work-release and re-entry programs,” he wrote. “It is worth noting that Gadsden is the only correctional facility in the state of Florida where charity funds are raised from inmates and their families and friends.”
DMS spokesman Patrick Gillespie said the agency “takes any allegations related to facility management extremely seriously and remains committed to holding its private prison vendors fully accountable to ensure the health, safety and enrichment of its inmates.”
He said that after Richardson’s complaint, the department ordered MTC to “immediately suspend all fundraising activities” and after the inspector general’s investigation, the department imposed a new policy for charitable giving “including implementing a strict mandatory approval process and project plan for charitable campaign administration” and updated its contract to include the changes.
“There are currently no charitable campaigns taking place, nor any plans that have been submitted for review,” Gillespie said.
This episode is only the latest trouble at the prison where conditions have included no hot water or heat for months.
Last year, Richardson called out the agency for allowing the prison to go for months without hot water or heat, flooded bathrooms and water rations when the septic tanks were jammed with food waste.
He asked Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency at the prison after two surprise inspections by Richardson and investigators from the Department of Corrections found unsafe and inhumane treatment of the 284 inmates. Scott refused.
Richardson asked for video tapes that would have “shined more light” on his list of concerns. But, he noted, he was told “these tapes were destroyed in what the contractor advised was an administrative error.” In his letter, he expressed frustration that Rock has not demonstrated that there have been “any corrective actions taken.”
Michael Weber, former director of specialized services for DMS, told auditors that the agency sanctioned the fundraisers at the prison because it allows the inmates to “give back to society.”
Auditors couldn’t find anyone at the agency that is charged with monitoring the private prisons who had heard any complaints of strong arming. The auditors interviewed 21 of the inmates and reported that “they wanted to participate in the fundraising activities held at GCF, and none of the inmates interviewed believed they were compelled to participate in the fundraising activities.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas