The Everglades Experiment: Florida’s First ‘Incentivized’ Prison Redefines Punishment

A first-of-its-kind facility that cultivates an environment of learning and rehabilitation in prisons.

By Ryan M. Moser, The Crime Report, June 21, 2021

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Edward Demoreta, a 39-year-old resident at Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) and former schoolteacher from West Palm Beach, Fl., isn’t the typical person you’d envision in prison.

“I had a perfect family and great life before I was arrested,” he said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t miss laughing and playing video games with my kids.”

A first-time offender, my cellmate takes full responsibility for his actions—having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Demoreta works daily to better himself, but adapting to Florida’s violent prison system was difficult for him.

And he’s not alone.

As of mid-June, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) has 80, 246 inmates in their custody—the third highest incarceration rate in the nation—and many of them are nonviolent or first-time offenders trying to survive in a place notorious for gangs, fighting, and sexual abuse.

With the exception of protective custody, and despite its 153-year history of violence, the FDC hasn’t adopted any new or innovative ideas to curb these problems throughout its correctional institutions—until recently.

The Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami opened its pilot program in January 2019 to great fanfare. It’s a first-of-its-kind facility that cultivates an environment of learning and rehabilitation—a privilege offered to men who stay free of disciplinary reports for four years.

The initiative focuses on improving the quality of life inside prison, with attention paid to education, career counseling, leisure time, wellness, and planning for reintegration in civilian society before release.

“When I first came to prison it seemed like every person I met operated out of a mindset of violence. No one wanted to better themselves,” Demoreta explained to me in an interview for this article.

“When I came to the Everglades I was encouraged to see so many men dedicated to the path of learning and self-improvement.”

It is nearly impossible for men and women to thrive in a traditional prison setting.

The brutality and hopelessness of life behind bars limits opportunities for anyone wanting to change. But by creating a safe place to live, ECI began to address the problem of widespread violence in the criminal justice system, allowing inmates to focus on self-betterment.

The progressive institution offers a good-quality menu, freedom of movement, a state-of-the-art game room, unlimited recreation, and live concerts. Vocational programs like a professional barber school, a water treatment operator’s course, and commercial driver’s license training offer a potential source of income for some of the majority of people who will eventually return home.

“We needed a solution for the violence men use to retaliate against perceived offences, bringing victims to the brink of death and administering life-long scars—both physical and emotional— with no justification,” said FDC Secretary Mark Inch in a statewide email to inmates on August 14, 2020.

“We needed to separate the men who wanted nothing to do with that aggression.”

Because incentive programs are only successful when prisoners are invested, the administration empowers men to get involved.

Compound activities are led by inmates. Many of the classes available are peer-facilitated, and men take ownership of the amenities by cleaning the facility and organizing events. Participants of the incentivized prison eagerly attend classes voluntarily: Toastmasters, Servant Leadership, Conflict Resolution, Seven Habits, Parenting, Victim Impact, K-9 Service Training, Yoga, and Zen Meditation are all popular classes and usually filled to capacity.

If you look at the advantages I’ve had in life, it’s almost inconceivable that I am sitting here in the Everglades today: a loving family who raised me to have good character; gifted classes in a great school system outside Philadelphia; an ambitious and career-oriented work life; a beautiful wife and son.

Yet in 2014, after losing a long struggle with drug addiction, I was sentenced to eight years in prison for grand theft and dealing in stolen property. I served my first five years on a rough compound in the Florida Panhandle—a city-boy stuck in the Deep South—and then volunteered to move to a newly created incentivized program as a way to change my life for the better and make my family proud.

My first class was called Healing Emotions.

I sat in a circle of convicts, sharing my feelings and fears while connecting on the same level as my peers. I’d never thought that I’d be involved with something like group therapy in prison, but it felt cathartic to explore my past.

Racism was nonexistent in the room: a bald, former white supremacist with homemade tattoos leaned forward with his chin in his hands; a retired Black gang leader posted up against the wall; a Hispanic boy sat mute, possibly ruminating on his own life choices.

We were all there for the same reason and working in harmony … trying to better ourselves.

In recent remarks to me about his institution, Assistant Warden of Programs Scott Siegler stated: “Environment plays a role in reform. By creating a low-stress atmosphere for officers and inmates, it allows growth and mutual understanding.”

On any given day there could be a Gang Summit for Unity or Family Day in the visitation park, a church softball league playing on the rec yard, or Peace Education Development in the learning annex.

Professors from nearby University of Miami and Florida International University volunteer to teach writing workshops and exchange anonymous letters with college students studying criminal justice or law. In an unprecedented move for the FDC, the administration hands out seven-inch loaner tablets used to email family, receive pictures and video-grams, and keep a schedule of classes.

The wardens send uplifting messages regularly. Living at ECI is the first time I’ve had a guard shake my hand, call me ‘sir’, or ask me how my afternoon was going. It inspires me to show them equal respect.

Measuring Success

If a nonviolent incentivized prison gives men and women an opportunity to change their lives and not come back to prison, it should be considered a viable option to pursue if only for the benefit of tax-paying communities, victims’ rights, and the broken families of the incarcerated.

The state of Florida spends an average of $25,000 per year to house, feed, clothe, secure, and give medical attention to a single inmate.

The minimal cost of converting a traditional prison into an incentivized prison pales in comparison to the cost of recidivism in the FDC: official records show that 35 percent of Florida’s inmates will return to prison within three years and approximately 65 percent will return in their lifetimes.

Experts disagree about whether imprisoning criminals in a violent environment actually prevents further crime. U.S. prisons simply warehouse men and women—meaning that inmates are confined in large numbers, with little or no effort made to rehabilitate them.

This punitive structure impedes correction, as isolation from society already hinders attempts to reintegrate back home. Sociologist Erving Goffman describes prisons as total institutions— self-contained systems that are unhealthy and shelter inmates from societal norms.

The first progressive prison in the U.S. was the Walnut Street jail in my hometown of Philadelphia. Built three years before the American Revolution as a conventional jail, it was expanded in 1790 to incorporate Quaker ideas that’ prisons should be rehabilitative.

The prison, which was called “America’s First Penitentiary,” was spearheaded by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who promoted prisoner education. Not all his views on prison reform would find approval today: inmates were locked in their cells for the duration of their stay with “minimum human contact and nothing more to read than a Bible,” according to one description, ostensibly to encourage them to focus on personal redemption and penitence for their sins (hence the word “penitentiary”).

But the innovative energy that fueled such reformers in the past seemed to fizzle out in modern day corrections. States are still slow to adopt policies that reduce violence inside—while at the same time the rate of incarceration across the country has exploded.

But how will anyone know if incentivized prisons are successful or simply progressive?

What set of metrics can be used to quantify meaningful change in an inmate?

Besides monitoring statistics and disciplinary reports, how can we say that living in this atmosphere reduces violence?

I’ve seen evidence of this 1,800-man pilot project working here in the Everglades.

Before I moved from my last institution I saw a stabbing every week. I haven’t seen one here in three years. No officers have been assaulted by inmates, or vice-versa. There hasn’t been one drug overdose or riot. Nobody has been life-flighted by a trauma helicopter after being brutally attacked on the rec yard.

These are daily occurrences in other Florida prisons that I’ve seen firsthand.

Statistics from North Dakota, Oregon, California, and Georgia show that DOC programs like firefighting school, forestry camps, equestrian training, and conservation groups lower inmate violence and help curb recidivism.

Only time will tell if ECI is completing its mission.

The benefit of treating inmates humanely has already been widely publicized in magazines like Outdoor, Time, and Esquire, and on television series like 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning.

On September 16, 2020, only nine months after ECI’s experiment began, FDC Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon sent a statewide email to inmates verifying Florida’s plans to open two more pilot programs.

It said the following:

We are also expanding the number of Incentivized Prisons,. These facilities are for those of you, who through your cooperation, have shown excellent behavior that is deserving of advanced privileges. e have tested this in the Everglades and it has been a success. Your peers have better program outcomes, fewer disciplinary infractions, and reductions in theft and violence. We will continue to reward positive behavior. Our goal is to provide an environment free from violence with opportunities for personal growth and development. [ii]

A Long Way to Go

Any new innovation incorporated into an already broken system comes with impediments.

Peer-facilitator Justin Slavinski, a 40-year old tutor who has lived at ECI since its transition, points out the limitations facing the institution.

“There’s little accountability for the officers who exhibit the same behaviors as those at non-incentivized correctional facilities,” said Justin. “It’s as if they haven’t bought into the tranquility of program oriented inmates.

“These officers are unwilling to adjust their behaviors, and they’re unchecked by upper administration.” [iii]

FLDOC correctional officer trainees who are assigned to ECI straight from the academy haven’t yet experienced what a “real” prison is like; therefore, some take advantage of the population’s meekness and fail to have a positive mind-set.

Some of this responsibility falls on the training officers, but for the most part it is a failure in regional leadership.

Guards who are assigned to an incentivized prison work in a safe environment; nonviolence and mutual respect creates a stress-free workplace. Unfortunately, some correctional officers have the ingrained thinking that all convicted felons are untrustworthy and evil.

Because of a FDC policy called population adjustment, the regional administration will regularly transfer new inmates to ECI even though they have not volunteered to participate in an incentivized prison and have not gone four years without a disciplinary report. Most often this is done to fill beds and meet certain requirements.

Although these inmates typically take advantage of the amenities and blend in, many have a negative attitude and do not follow the rules. Allowing men to live at an incentivized prison that hasn’t earned the right negates a reward-based system.

There’s also the lingering question: should we have to send people to prison to get the educational, emotional, and other support services they need? Many people in the criminal justice system were cut off from such opportunities and it led them down a path to incarceration.

Ideally, this support model would be applied before anyone interacts with the criminal justice system in the first place.

But for the current system—where violence is rampant—any conversation about reform must include discussing the way that modern correctional institutions operate. The goal is to raise awareness of progressive rehabilitation methods and spur a revolution of new ideas and innovative solutions for the future.

After two years of trial and error, the Everglades Correctional Institution is now known as the safest prison out of the 64 correctional institutions in the state.

Looking at ECI can at least start a conversation about that change.

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