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Brandes hopes to improve prison education through virtual learning

Mark Parker

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Sen. Jeff Brandes was the only Republican to vote against Florida withdrawing from OSHA. Screengrab.

In what could be one of the last bills he files as a state senator, Jeff Brandes hopes to enhance Florida’s prison education system through a virtual learning program.

Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, recently announced he is working with the Florida Virtual School to create a division of justice education. Brandes believes this would expand Florida Virtual’s resources and allow it to provide better education to the thousands of people behind bars in the state. Brandes told the Catalyst that on his many tours of prisons around Florida, it was common to see empty school rooms, “and it became apparent we needed to find an alternative solution.”

“The goal here is to utilize Florida Virtual Schools and their library and curriculum to build on a justice education division that focuses on the Department of Corrections, and ultimately, the Department of Juvenile Justice,” he said.

Florida houses upwards of 80,000 inmates, and about half cannot read at a sixth-grade level. In part, this is due to a lack of educators. Brandes said Florida’s prison facilities house an average of 1,500 inmates while only employing one or two – often zero – educators. That creates a significant barrier to finding post-incarceration employment and contributes to the state’s recidivism rate, currently around 24%.

Brandes said the two leading indicators for recidivism are what type of family an inmate is going back to after their release, and if they can find employment. He added that if half of the inmates are functionally illiterate, that is a huge portion of the prison population that will have a difficult time acquiring a job.

“We can’t control the family situation people go back to,” he said. “What we can do is control the education they receive within our institutions and prepare them to lead a life on the outside.

“That’s what this program is hoping to address.”

Brandes has been a vocal proponent of prison and criminal justice reform during his five-year tenure as a state senator, often crossing the political aisle to champion the cause. He is term-limited after 2022, but called criminal justice and prison reform “a life-long calling.”

“It’s my intent to really establish this program as a beachhead and grow it over time,” he said. “And then begin to address some of the other glaring issues within the Department of Corrections, as far as criminal justice policy.”

Brandes said initial drafts on a bill for the program are complete, and the final version will be ready within a month. He is currently seeking the input of various organizations to identify any areas that can be improved upon, and said the bill should be put to a vote in early February. Brandes added that he is very optimistic the state legislature will approve his virtual education idea.

“For one, it’s an option for the Department of Corrections, and if we can find additional dollars to go into education – which is very likely – then I have no doubt that it’s a tool that the legislature and the state should use,” he said. “The legislature should look very favorably on any additional tools that can be used to improve outcomes of our corrections.”

The state senator adds that he has spoken to several other legislators about his idea and believes that many will jump at the chance to co-sponsor the bill once it is complete.

The vast majority of the people in the Florida Department of Corrections, Brandes emphasizes, will ultimately be released one day. “Our prisons are not filled with lifers,” he said.

He wants those inmates to return to society with an education and be prepared to find a job so they can live as productive members of their communities.

“The number one thing we can do while they are incarcerated is to utilize that time to better those individuals,” said Brandes. “It’s called the Department of Corrections for a reason. Unfortunately, right now, most of what it does is warehouse people.

“We, the legislature, have to turn it back into an organization that’s focused on correcting behavior.”

 

 

 

 

 

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