Slaying raises doubts on prison work release

Published Jul. 1, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

Donald David Dillbeck said he wanted to learn to bake pies. So officials shipped Dillbeck, who was serving a life sentence for killing a police officer, to a special prison cooking school in North Florida. In recent weeks, they even let him cater banquets outside prison in the nearby community of Quincy.

But Dillbeck was busy cooking up something else, too _ a plot to escape during one of those banquets.

Authorities say the escape plot cost a 44-year-old woman her life.

Faye Lamb Vann was stabbed to death in her car at a busy Tallahassee shopping mall last Sunday. Her throat was slashed, apparently with a paring knife.

Dillbeck's arrest in the murder also has seriously damaged the credibility of the state's entire prison work program, which already was troubled by the effects of prison overcrowding and institutional neglect, some observers say.

"This idea that you can put people with (life) sentences on work release _ it's obscene," Sen. Bob Johnson, R-Sarasota, said last week. "The whole system is broken. ... We really need to deal with it totally differently."

After Dillbeck's arrest, Gov. Bob Martinez abruptly ordered back to prison more than 800 inmates who were in work release centers last week.

All were serving so-called minimum mandatory sentences, like Dillbeck's, for a variety of serious offenses ranging from drug dealing to murder. Dillbeck was serving a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence as part of his life term for the murder of a Lee County sheriff's deputy. Dillbeck was not part of an official work release program.

But the sudden removals still left many violent offenders in work release centers because they weren't among those serving minimum mandatory sentences, which require an inmate to serve a specific amount of time without early release.

Martinez's actions outraged some legislators as well as the families and employers of a number of inmates, who criticized the governor for overreacting.

Others criticized state officials for ever allowing inmates serving minimum mandatory sentences into work release.

"There's 800 people who shouldn't have been in that position in the first place," said Sen. Larry Plummer, D-South Miami, the chairman of the Senate Corrections, Probation and Parole Committee.

Still others said the Dillbeck case _ and the presence of so many other serious offenders in work release programs _ shows that the community work programs themselves are troubled. Increasingly, work release programs are turning to serious offenders because those are the only inmates who stay in the prison system long enough to reach work release, those observers say.

"The fact is the hard-core (prisoners) are stacking up. The rest are rolling out too fast to get into work release," said Johnson, the Sarasota Republican.

One result, he said, is more crimes committed by hardened inmates on work details.

State Sen. Arnett Girardeau, D-Jacksonville, said last week that most inmates are being released so fast that "the bad guy back in the (prison) ... gets so much gain time that he's eligible for work release within two or three months, where he normally wouldn't be ready (for work release) for two or three years."

Because of overcrowding, Florida inmates typically serve about 25 to 33 percent of their sentences.

Girardeau said he's worried about those hostile, aggressive inmates, including ones serving minimum mandatory sentences for violent crimes.

"They're going right back into society with hostile attitudes," Girardeau said. "Some of these people shouldn't even be in a work release center. They should be (in close security) as long as possible, and then worked on to get some of that hostility out of them."

Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Macmaster acknowledged that some inmates might be moving through the prison system so fast that they bypass work release, even though they could be good candidates for the program.

Work release is intended to ease an inmate's return to society by allowing him to find steady employment while being supervised. Work release inmates typically work during the day and live in dormitories with other work release inmates.

But Macmaster denied that more serious offenders are getting into work release before they're ready.

"You have to look at the risk to the community, and we screen very carefully," Macmaster said. "It's impossible to predict (behavior) with absolute certainty, but the standards we use for selection have been proven in the past to help to safeguard the community."

Some prison system policy changes suggest that inmates with longer sentences are able to get into work release faster, however. When the program began in the mid-1960s, work release was aimed at prisoners who had six months or less left on their sentences. In the early 1970s that was changed to 12 months. In the early 1980s it changed again, to 18 months. Finally, about three years ago, the rule became 24 months.

Prison system officials said last week that they could not provide detailed information about the types of offenders who have been placed in work release over the years.

Officials did provide a recent sample list of inmates at the Largo Community Correctional Center, a facility that mostly contains inmates from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The information shows that 20 of the 61 men were serving terms for violent crimes, including three men convicted of second-degree murder.

Even after Martinez's removal of offenders serving minimum mandatory sentences, 13 of the violent offenders remained at Largo, prison records show. One of them was James Lee Roysdon, 33, sentenced to life for second-degree murder in 1982 for stabbing a man to death after a hit-and-run accident in St. Petersburg.

Strangely, another result of the state's prison population boom may be that work release is being used less, according to state statistics. At a time when the state's prison system routinely releases hundreds of inmates each month because of overcrowding, vacancy rates in the state's work release centers are huge.

Last week, even before Martinez ordered the removals, the vacancy rate for all work release programs stood at 33 percent, with 2,756 beds filled out of 4,061 available.

Why such a high vacancy rate?

Some critics say the prison system deliberately keeps work release beds empty to give itself a comfort margin. This allows the system to cram more prisoners into high-security facilities without violating a federal court order that limits the prison system's overall population.

But prison spokesman Macmaster said that's not the reason. He said prison officials simply have trouble finding and keeping enough people who fit the criteria for work release. The criteria call for inmates with no more than two years left who are minimal escape or discipline risks.

"There are people going through the system faster, and that certainly impacts on it," he said. "The other reason is they don't meet the criteria. It's not that we can't find them; it's the inmates themselves, their behavior in prison, the types of crimes they committed. It's for no other reason than that."

Prison officials left open the possibility that they will allow some offenders serving minimum mandatory sentences to return to work release. But other officials predicted the Corrections Department will be more reluctant to make prisoners eligible for work release.

_ Staff writers Charlotte Sutton, Mark Journey and Rachel L. Swarns contributed to this report.