Prison agency agrees to keep transition center in Broward

State prison officials announced Wednesday they have reached an agreement to continue a privately-run inmate transition program in Broward and Manatee counties for two more years, but the agreement comes at a cost: the closing of a work-release center for 122 inmates.

The Florida Department of Corrections notified Bridges of America last month that it would have to move out of the state-owned building that houses the inmate transition program by May 15 because the agency needed the Pompano Beach space for its probation offices. It then told the company that it would also cancel the Bradenton Bridge contract in July, forcing 84 female transition inmates and 36 work-release inmates to move.

But after several state and local officials protested the moves at each facility, FDC backed down and announced Wednesday it had signed contracts to keep the Broward Bridges of America program in both locations.

The state will continue to pay Bridges of America for 150 transition beds — down from 172 — at the Pompano Beach operation but the inmates must be housed at the Turning Point Community Release Center down the road, said Lori Costantino-Brown, President and CEO of Bridge of America. As a result, she must close the 122-bed community release center and there will not be any inmates in that facility for several months as she remodels the facility, but the state will pay for them, she said.

In Bradenton, the state has agreed to continue to contract for Bradenton Bridges, at a lower per diem rate, she said. Both agreements will last two years, with three one-year renewal options. 

“It's unfortunate that it took lawmakers, media pressure and public outrage to defend these programs, but we are glad that the FDOC is finally starting to listen,” said Costantino-Brown. “I’m laying off staff. I lost 122 beds and I took a $500,000 a year per diem cut on Broward and Bradenton.”

In a statement, FDC said that effective May 12, all inmates previously participating in programming at Broward Bridge will have been placed in treatment beds in other parts of the state, and all future male inmates that qualify for transition and substance abuse services in Broward County will be served by Bridges at the Turning Point Community Release Center, which will be adding up to 112 transition and substance abuse beds.

“Throughout this entire process, our focus has been to ensure there was no interruption in services,’’ said FDC Secretary Julie Jones in a statement I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that will best serve those re-entering society.”

Because the Turning Point Center also will eventually reopen 88 work release beds that will be initially closed, the net loss of program beds for inmates will be 61 and some of those could be replaced, said McKinley Lewis, FDC spokesman.

“The department is constantly monitoring the needs of our inmates re-entering communities around our state,’’ he said. “Should work release beds need to be expanded in Broward County, the Department believes that several options exist to do so.”

Lewis said that the new contract includes “additional perforance metrics” for Bridges of America and are “just the start of our retooling of this process.”

Costantino-Brown, however, said the new metrics added to the contract are lower than the previous metrics and “were not important to us because we have exceeded them all in the past.”

In Bradenton, where community officials feared the loss of the Bradenton Bridge transition center, the reaction was positive.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said she was “ecstatic” when she learned of the decision to keep the program open.

“There are so very few facilities to offer these programs for those who really want to transition back and be removed from the prison system,” she said. “We need more such centers.”

Elizabeth Ritter, whose 29-year-old daughter Jessica has only six more months at Bradenton Bridge before she re-enters the community, said she was grateful the operation will not be closing this summer.

“I don't know what I would have done if they would have closed it,” said Ritter said from her North Carolina home. “She would have gone back to prison, and that wouldn't have been fair. I couldn't see her go back to prison over something like that.”

Jessica is at the transition and work-release facility after being sentenced to three years in prison for shoplifting.

“I am relieved that she can stay there and finish what she's got to do,” Ritter said. “I'm just so thankful that they are not closing the place.”

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Claire Aronson of the Bradenton Herald contributed to this report