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Jail inmates facing loss of educational programs

TAMPA

Adrian Miller used to be a teen with a drug problem and a habit of landing behind bars.

Now, at 34, he's a father who holds a driver's license, pays child support and dreams of starting a plant nursery. Free for nearly two years, this is his longest jail-free stint since he turned 18.

All this, he says, happened because of the lessons he learned in jail through vocational training.

But a recent change in state law threatens the availability of adult education programs in jails throughout Florida.

With a required tuition fee levied on GED, sewing, computer and horticultural classes offered at Falkenburg Road Jail, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is searching for funding options. Otherwise, the programs may be scrapped.

Jail officials in Pinellas and Pasco counties also are considering other funding options to keep the programs afloat.

"Unfortunately, at this point, it's a money game," said Maj. Mike Perotti, a jail division commander in Hillsborough.

Fewer than one-third of the county's inmates could afford the fees, he said, which amount to $45 for a half-year class.

Alternatives for covering the costs may be scarce: Perotti's jail budget needs to address safety and security before these "nice but nonessential" classes, he said.

And while the inmates' canteen fund could put proceeds from purchases and phone calls toward the programs, its spending is strictly limited to items that benefit the general inmate population.

A few hundred of the 3,200 county inmates participate in adult education classes, Perotti said.

About eight inmates attain their high-school equivalency degree each month, he said.

"They might as well be doing something useful," Perotti said, "and find a way to improve themselves rather than sitting back in a corner all day long."

In addition to work force training, the sewing class repairs inmates' uniforms and bedding.

The classes also keep inmates from getting restless inside shared spaces, he said.

The law mandates that school districts, which provide teachers for the jail classes, charge the tuition fee. Wynne Tye, the Hillsborough school district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said officials are giving inmates through the third week of October to come up with the tuition.

Once the district sees how many inmates are able to pay, it will decide the fate of the jail programs, Tye said. If it's less than 10, she said, the district will have to reconsider putting on the classes.

Other counties also said it's too early to gauge the impact. But the Pinellas Sheriff's Office said it might have a way to help through its inmate welfare fund, which draws its revenue from commissary sales, said spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda.

That fund is now being used to assist indigent inmates, she said.

In Pasco, the Sheriff's Office is also considering whether to tap inmate welfare funds to cover the tuition costs, spokesman Kevin Doll said.

That fund already covers the cost of the jail's agriculture and horticulture program, which uses deputies as instructors and thus does not have to charge tuition.

In May, state legislators tacked fees onto adult education programs that were previously free. Florida residents pay $90 yearly for a class. The amount triples for those out-of-state.

"This is an almost free education," said state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who sat last session on the Senate's higher education appropriations committee.

Simmons said the fees arose to stop people from starting free classes without finishing them. It cost the government money to administer the classes, he said, but some students weren't invested.

He said he did not recall discussions about the law's possible effect on inmate populations and offered to look into funding sources or legal exceptions.

But Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, said the loss of inmate programs is an unintended consequence of the measure. She said the Legislature needs to reconsider the charges.

"We'll be letting young folks out of jail without any skills, and they can't get jobs," she said. "We'll pay more if they end up back in the system. We've got to find a way to fix this."

The threat of losing the jail programs hit home with local horticulture instructor Allen Boatman.

Teaching the jail's horticulture program for 14 years, Boatman prepared to empty his greenhouse classrooms.

Friday's quarterly plant sale might have been the inmates' last. In addition to the usual potted plants, Boatman turned out the greenhouse's inventory.

"I really had a heart for the inmates," he said. "I wanted to see them go on and not come back, go on and do great things."

Miller, his prized pupil, remembered the mentor's devotion.

Boatman had given Miller books to read in his jail pod and taught him to pick the right crowds to hang out with.

No longer in an orange jumpsuit, Miller expected to come back to jail on Friday.

With $200 to spend, he hoped to buy enough of the inmates' plants to start his own nursery.

Times staff writer Jodie Tillman and researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Jail inmates facing loss of educational programs 10/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]
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