Geo prisons’ ‘Continuum of Care’ shows promise

MOORE HAVEN — Once every quarter, neighbors of some of Florida’s prisons get a chance to take a brief glimpse into life behind the walls for their incarcerated fellow citizens, courtesy of one of the three firms that run the state’s seven private facilities.

The Geo Group Inc., based in Boca Raton, has had a public-private partnership with the state for over two decades, since back when it was known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp. Geo Group operates five of those seven private prisons — two of them in the south Lake Okeechobee region, Moore Haven Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility (MHCRF) and South Bay Correctional Facility.

Last Wednesday, Dec. 5, new Warden Mike Holm hosted a few dozen guests in the Moore Haven prison’s large visitor reception room, bathed in sunlight from windows looking out over the visitation part of the outdoor gathering area. The occasion was the fourth quarter 2018 meeting of the prison’s Community Relations (formerly Advisory) Board. But aside from the security protocol upon entry, it didn’t feel much like a prison (they’d relaxed the usual procedures). Warden Holm said that was planned because a bigger-than-usual number had responded to the RSVP invitations sent out to many local officials, law enforcement and other public agencies, civic organizations, business interests, private citizens and associations.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Programs Manager Charmonica Spivey (center) speaks about successes brought about by the Geo Group’s Continuum of Care.

He welcomed everyone to the luncheon, saying: “This is my second Community Relations Board, and I’m really happy and proud of the fact that it’s growing.”

A little background about MHCRF came next. The minimum- and medium-security, 985-bed institution for adult males is a bit over capacity since it’s taken in some Bay Correctional Facility inmates transferred during Hurricane Michael. Mr. Holm noted that Geo’s 200-some workers at MHCRF make it “one of, if not the largest employer in the local area.

“The reasons that we have these CRB meetings are several,” the warden went on. “One is to be a good partner in the community … but also to get to know not just the local community leaders but local residents. And to bring you inside so you can see that it’s not … this awful institution that you think or that you hear about or that you watch on movies. It’s where we house criminals, but we do a lot in the way of trying to reduce recidivism. And so today’s presentation is based on the Continuum of Care,” a program Geo Group innovated.

Mr. Holm then asked guests to introduce themselves. There were several Geo guards or employees of the prison, representatives from the Glades County Board and some county offices, the Florida Department of Health in Hendry and Glades Counties, Florida Community Health Centers, Florida SouthWestern State College and the Department of Law Enforcement, among others.

He introduced Programs Manager Charmonica Spivey to give a presentation on Geo’s Continuum of Care, or CoC program, which the company introduced at its own expense in July 2015 at its Graceville facility in Jackson County. Designed by Geo’s internal team of experts, it is “an enhanced in-custody offender rehabilitation program that includes cognitive behavioral treatment, integrated with post-release support services.” Company literature says it’s tailored to individual counseling and educational needs, geared toward meeting specific reentry necessities and provides post-release support services, including resources and individual assistance (food, clothing, housing, transportation, etc.). Geo says that among released inmates who participated, their recidivism rate (the proportion of those who reoffend and return to prison) dropped by 35 percent, based on a nine-month period early in the program.

Two years later, in 2017, after Geo had invested $1.8 million to implement the CoC program at Graceville, the state contributed $2.9 million to expand CoC to the rest of Geo’s four facilities, where it is operated at cost with no Geo overhead or fees.Warden Holm says that good result wasn’t the only positive effect of the CoC. It also induced hundreds of inmates to complete substance abuse, behavioral, faith- and character-based programs, seek vocational certifications or complete their GEDs. But, he said, “That is its sole purpose — to dissuade inmates from reoffending.
“A lot of times, privatization, private industry in reference to corrections, gets that rap — that we’re in it to make money, it’s a for-profit business. Which is true,” Warden Holm allowed. “But that just means that’s just how we operate. It doesn’t mean we count on inmates returning to prison to turn a buck. We’re doing everything we can to reduce recidivism.”

Geo Group is providing the CoC services to fulfill part of its contract with the state on top of built-in requirements, including that the company must save state taxpayers 7 percent. No assistance comparable to that available under Geo’s CoC program is provided by state-operated prisons, however.

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