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Originally published Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 9:39 AM

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New Fla. prison's goal is to send inmates home and keep them from re-offending

Warden Rod James sticks his head into a classroom at his prison. Inmates in pale blue uniforms are sitting behind desks doing math problems. James has a pop quiz.

Associated Press Writer

POLK CITY, Fla. —

Warden Rod James sticks his head into a classroom at his prison. Inmates in pale blue uniforms are sitting behind desks doing math problems. James has a pop quiz.

"What are we trying to do here?" he says, asking not about the math problems but the prison.

Trying to make sure inmates don't return to prison, one man says. Getting an education, another says. True, but James hasn't heard what he wants to hear.

"Change," another man says.

That satisfies the warden. He asks the same question of inmates all over the prison — in a substance abuse class, in a chapel, in a computer class. He gets the same answer: "change," ''change," ''change."

Inmates may say they're trying to change, but the prison James heads, Demilly Correctional Institution in Polk County, is a change for the state. The 350-person, all-male facility, which will have an opening ceremony Friday, is the first Florida prison to focus on "re-entry" or reintegrating prisoners into society. Other states, including California, Kansas, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, also have re-entry programs.

Almost 90 percent of Florida's nearly 100,000 prisoners will be released at some point. But a third will also be back within three years. The point of Demilly, a former juvenile facility, is to help bring that rate down. And the Department of Corrections' overall goal is to halve the number of ex-prisoners returning to lockup within the next five years. They're working on another facility like Demilly near Jacksonville and plan at least two more around the state.

"We are embarking upon changing the mind-set of the way we in our state deal with inmates that are being released," said Department of Corrections head Walter McNeil.

Officials believe by taking prisoners with three years or less remaining on their sentences and by concentrating education, mental health and substance abuse resources on them, they will be less likely to re-offend. Inmates at the state's 130-some prisons get similar services. But there are often waiting lists. Or prisoners may get classes early in their sentences instead of right before being released, when a life skills class would be more helpful.

At Demilly, the message is clear even to new inmates, who have been arriving at the facility for the last few months as it slowly ramped up. Every Tuesday, when new inmates arrive by bus around 9 a.m., the warden meets them. He asks them to raise their hands if they've been to prison more than once. Almost all do. Then he asks them to raise their hands if they want to come back. None do.

Inmates say the facility is different. Inmates are housed in dorms and classified as medium security and lower. One man said that on previous trips to prison he had to work until the last day, but at Demilly he was being given time to finish his education.

Warden James, meanwhile, demands the inmates treat staff and each other with respect, saying it's practice for life outside. The same goes for dress and personal hygiene.

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"That's not going to work for me," he tells an inmate wearing a hole-studded, long-sleeve shirt under his prison uniform.

James knows some people will be skeptical. The state says the approach isn't any more or less expensive, but why bother focusing on people who have shown a pattern of returning to prison? James says people should instead hope the method works. That would mean fewer crimes committed and fewer taxpayer dollars going to new prison construction. Last year, the state estimated it would need to build 19 new prisons at a cost of $100 million a prison over the next five years.

"If we can stop the growth," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger, "then we'll be able to stop building."

Plessinger said Demilly isn't modeled on any other state and the department will be monitoring it closely. Seeing whether the program is a success could take a few years, however. Warden James has asked his staff to track the men who come through Demilly and wind up back in the system.

Realistically, he knows some will. Already one inmate has tried to have a visitor smuggle marijuana into the facility.

"Will some people re-offend? Yes. Will some people stay out of prison? Yes," he said. "I just hope the latter number is higher than the first."

Demilly inmate Jason Canady, 28, says he's ready to change. This is his third time in prison, and he has 19 months left on his 3-year sentence for cocaine possession and trafficking.

He says getting out this time will be different. He has applied to a cooking program that will start soon at Demilly, and he hopes to ultimately work in his uncle's soul food restaurant.

"I'm leaving here with education," Canady said. "I don't see myself coming back."

___

On the Net:

Florida Department of Corrections: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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