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A man who makes a difference

The year was 1956, the setting was the Florida State Prison at Raiford, and the people who looked so out of place were Vernon Fox's criminology students from Florida State University, making their obligatory field trip to the world of Cool Hand Luke. Along with other questions with which the professor had primed us, we were to ask, "How many psychiatrists do you have here?" "We're all psychiatrists here," drawled our escort, a rotund guard wearing a farmer's straw hat and nondescript civilian clothes. Guards weren't called correctional officers back then, and only the inmates got uniforms. They didn't have any real psychiatrists, either.

Florida's prisons have come a long way since then but in many respects "progress" only proved the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The corrections force was professionalized, teachers and psychiatrists were hired, and industries more relevant than license plate-making were brought in. But crime rates have soared even though Florida kept on filling prisons as fast as it could build them. And though many of the prison administrators meant well, there was a certain self-defeating sameness to them. They tended to come from the same families that had staffed and run the prisons forever, and when one got in trouble the others would always get him out. Try as some did to effect constructive change, they had trouble getting the politicians to take them seriously.

That will definitely not be the case with the new corrections secretary, Harry K. Singletary Jr., who spoke to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last week.

Club members compete to ask the toughest question. So in due course someone challenged him to cite the differences, if any, between Gov. Lawton Chiles and his predecessor, Bob Martinez, on how to deal with crime.

"I'm the secretary," Singletary replied, bringing down the house.

He wasn't kidding, and he wasn't being immodest. Who Singletary is, and what he is saying, symbolize dramatic departures from the past.

To start with, he's black _ no minor matter considering that many of his employees are white men from rural North Florida. But to a prison population that's some 55 percent black _ and to their families and friends on the outside _ it sends a strong message that hard work and character can overcome prejudice.

Even more important, though, is what Singletary is saying at every opportunity on the rubber chicken circuit. More prisons and longer sentences won't solve crime, and the taxpayers can't afford them. "We can't build our way out of this," he warned the Suncoast tigers. If it costs up to $33,000 per bed to build a secure, single-cell prison and up to $41.50 per day per inmate to run it, community control at $4.95 a day makes vastly more sense for the nondangerous offender, and for the taxpayers too. Because overcrowded prisons mean abbreviated terms, violent offenders are being set free to make room for bad check artists and people caught "with two rocks in their pocket." The revolving door spins so fast, he said, that "inmates prefer to go to prison rather than spend two years on probation."

The statistics repudiate common sense. Florida imprisons some 6,000 people a year for an average of four months at an average cost of $14,500.

"That's a good one-year education at Harvard," he said.

Not that most of his inmates would be ready for Harvard. Some 65 percent have not completed the 11th grade and read at a sixth-grade level or less. They come in with drug dependencies and other health problems that cost $4,000 per year per inmate to treat _ almost twice the per capita cost of health care for all Americans _ and many have progressed from small crimes to serious ones. Yet the sermon Singletary has been preaching is that virtually all of them will come out of prison someday. So why not spend a little to see that they don't have to go prison in the first place?

"I would prefer to spend the money on preventive care," he said. ". . . If you did that, you know how many people would come to prison? Very few . . .

"We need to do something about schools, about health care, about the quality of life of the people who are living in our communities," he pleaded. "It is not only a criminal justice system problem, but a problem for each and every one of us. . . .

He promised to be "all over this state, making people uncomfortable with what we do."

The conventional law-and-order crowd won't like it. But Singletary is right, and he's ready for them. When a club member asked how he thought a roomful of state attorneys would respond to what he had been saying, Singletary deadpanned: "It depends on whether they're running for election."

Now, if only the Legislature will listen.

CORRECTION: Speaking of the Legislature, it wasn't the House clerk's office but the staff of the sergeant at arms that was responsible for dispensing liquor from lobbyists during sessions three decades ago. A June 2 column confused the two.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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