ORLANDO, Fla. — State lawmakers are sounding the alarm about dangers building within the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), with prisons understaffed and overcrowded.
“We haven’t provided an adequate escape valve for reducing pressure on the prison system, which is right now a powder keg ready to explode,” Republic State Senator Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, told the ABC Action News I-Team.
As the state focuses on increasing correctional officer pay, there is also a push to release some of the sick and elderly prisoners in the system. Florida has a higher percentage of elderly prisoners than any other state at 27 percent. The aging population is driving up healthcare costs, outside hospital visits, and the need for bed space.
In its 2020-2021 Strategic Plan & Annual Report, the Department of Corrections wrote, “Florida’s statutory approach to sentencing generally leads to an older prison population.”
Florida defines an “elderly” prisoner as anyone 50 or older. Experts say aging is sped up because of poor health, lifestyle risk factors, and limited healthcare many inmates have before they get to prison.
A 2019 audit of healthcare in the Department of Corrections found the state’s elderly inmate population grew by 77 percent over the last 10 years. Older prisoners cost the state about three times as much, largely due to healthcare costs.
“Today, Floridians, you and I as taxpayers, foot 100% of that bill,” Brandes said.
Brandes vice-chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
“We have people with cancer, we have people who are quadriplegic and paraplegics, that are incarcerated in the Florida prison system, who are largely incapable of committing new crimes,” Brandes said.
'It begins to put public safety at risk'
The I-Team asked the senator why the public should care.
“Because at some juncture, it begins to put public safety at risk. When dollars are being allocated to care for somebody who’s in their late 70s, who committed a crime 30 years ago, that hasn’t had a disciplinary issue in the last decade, that could easily, safely be monitored and evaluated from outside the prison system, why shouldn’t the state do that? Especially if it costs virtually nothing to do that,” Brandes responded. “The more people that we incarcerate, the less dollars we can put toward letting officers on the street, which is ultimately what lowers crime in communities.”
Right now, a prisoner must be permanently incapacitated or terminally ill to even be considered for medical release. Brandes has a bill this upcoming session that would give more power to the Department of Corrections under the compassionate release program.
A 'nursing home' in prison
“For folks who don’t have the opportunities to go in prisons, you can’t appreciate how dire and bad the system is, as it stands today,” Democratic State Representative Andrew Learned, of Brandon, told the I-Team.
At Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, he said, “We have essentially a nursing home in that prison. Right now. And most of these folks are bedridden. They’re no threats to society. And I have no idea what each individual person on that floor did, but surely there has to be a more creative way we can look at that problem and say, how can we save the taxpayer of Florida a couple bucks?”
Learned has since filed an appropriations bill to study Florida’s conditional medical release program, calling the influx of elderly prisoners a crisis.
As of June 2021, the FDC reports 66 percent of elderly prisoners are in for violent crimes.
Stephan Stuckey is one of them. His wife, Karen Stuckey, advocates for people in prison, particularly the sick and elderly and those serving long sentences.
“Stuckey is an example of a person sentenced to an extremely long sentence for a minor crime,” Karen told the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in February.
In 2003, Stuckey shoplifted DVDs from a Seminole County Sam’s Club. He was sentenced to 30 years.
“The problem with Stephan is he was judged a career violent criminal,” Karen, who lives in Orange City, told the I-Team.
According to the arrest report, Stuckey resisted the Loss Prevention Team at Sam’s Club and suffered a seizure, sending him to the hospital. Stuckey was a repeat offender, having served time for nonviolent crimes, burglary, and theft.
During his sentencing, a prosecutor argued Stuckey, “simply has come to the time where he just needs to be warehoused and assure the public that he’s not going to be violating the law again.”
Stuckey is on year 18 of his sentence. According to FDC records, he has had zero disciplinary issues.
Karen told the I-Team her husband was diagnosed with Lupus in 2005.
“If they let these older people out like Stephan, they can wear a bracelet, a monitor,” Karen said. “He wants to get medical treatment.”
As Karen hopes that day comes, she continues to advocate for other prisoners.
“There’s too many people that need help. You can’t just walk away from it,” she said.
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Tucked away in a quiet corner of Orlando, the I-Team met William Forrester in his piece of paradise.
“I’ve always had a green thumb,” Forrester said, planting in a plot of land behind his apartment, filled with vibrant flowers and towering trees.
“I just wish there weren’t so many roots in this ground,” Forrester said, laboring to dig deeper into the ground. “You have to go through the different trials and tribulations to get to the good results before you see the good outcome of what you’re doing.”
Forrester said, in many ways, that description for gardening applies to his entire life.
“But now especially, since I’m learning a new life,” he said.
His new life comes after more than a decade locked up in Florida prison. In 2009, a judge sentenced Forrester to 15 years in state prison for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and drug trafficking.
Forrester said, leading up to that 15-year sentence, his life, “was a life of a lot of sickness, a lot of illness, I had lung cancer, I had a lobectomy and two more surgeries after that to get rid of the cancer.”
Forrester got “very addicted” to the pain medications.
“The more I took, the more I needed. It didn’t stop. So when they decided that it was time for me to cut back, after about five years of me being on all of these different medications, I couldn’t do it. I mean my body couldn’t do it. And I made a bad decision and forged a prescription,” Forrester said. “Since I bought them illegally, that was trafficking.”
In 2018, the judge who sentenced Forrester wrote the Clemency Board, recommending Forrester’s release, saying, “I sentenced him to the minimum mandatory sentence of fifteen (15) years. At the time of the sentencing and even today, I believe that the sentence was excessive given the crime, his criminal history, and the involvement of addiction in his life.”
He also mentioned the “substantially increased” cost of treatment for an elderly inmate. Forrester told the I-Team, at one point, he was hospitalized for three weeks while in prison.
“The cost of that stay was crazy. It was like a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said.
The 65-year-old served his full time and got out this summer.
“They should look at the elderlies, you know, and take into consideration their charge,” Forrester said.
For Lisa Lopez, hope is found on hangers and sticking to the wall of her closet.
“I know soon he’ll be out here wearing them. I pray to God he is,” she said, touching new clothes she bought for her fiancé.
Post-its pepper the back wall.
“Just little Post-its that I ask God to help him come home. And I also pray for other inmates that are going through struggles in there,” Lopez said.
She moved from Tampa to Crystal River with her son, to be closer to her fiancé. She makes the drive every weekend to visit him at the Mayo Correctional Institution Annex. But the help she is seeking for her sick fiancé Jesus Ruiz, a family friend since childhood, comes with far bigger hurdles.
“He was charged with second-degree murder back in 1984,” Lopez said.
Ruiz left Cuba as a teenager and got involved in drugs in Miami.
“It was a drug deal gone wrong,” Lopez told the I-Team.
Ruiz is now 66 years old. He’s serving a life sentence. Lopez said he has chronic high blood pressure and a liver condition.
“What do you say to people who say — he killed somebody. He does not deserve to get out,” the I-Team asked.
“You have to look at the situation. It’s not just so cut and dry like people think,” Lopez said. “I understand the part of the victim. They killed someone. That person lost their life. There should be a punishment. But there should be a rehabilitation.”
Lopez said in prison, Ruiz teaches other men to turn to God and accept Jesus.
“He has incredible faith,” Lopez said.
Corrections records show Ruiz’s last disciplinary issue was more than 20 years ago.
“If they’re sick, they’ve proven themselves, they have all of this criteria they can go through — send them home,” Lopez said. “On home confinement, with a monitor.”
In the ABC Action News series, Crisis in Corrections, the I-Team reveals the factors building to what state leaders call a breaking point in the Florida Department of Corrections. What’s at stake in the state’s largest agency and the third-largest prison system in the country and the impact beyond prison gates.