Florida Tackles Prison Crowding With Tent City

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Corrections officials are preparing to house inmates in military-style tents as the department faces record prison population levels and deep budget cuts.

Florida Department of Corrections erected almost 40 of the temporary housing structures at nine of the state’s 139 facilities and has an additional 20 tents, each of which can house up to 22 inmates, in reserve. State legislation mandates that the prison system maintain a buffer of excess bed space. The department is also building four permanent 68-bed dormitory units.

The state prison population surpassed 100,000 inmates for the first time in December and prison officials turned to the canvas tents as a precautionary measure to address potential overcrowding problems, officials say.

Florida’s prison population increased from approximately 53,000 inmates in 1993 to more than 72,000 inmates in 2001 and has continued to grow by about 2,000 to 5,000 inmates every year since, according to official figures.

During 2007-08, Florida’s inmate population increased by almost 6 percent — the highest growth rate of any state system — to pass the 100,000-inmate mark for the first time.

California and Texas, each with approximately 170,000 inmates, are the only other states with six-digit state prison populations, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics.

Florida will need to build 19 new prisons at a cost of almost $2 billion during the next five years to meet population growth projections, which show no sign of slowing, officials say.

However, the department is under pressure to implement significant spending cuts for fiscal year 2008-09 as Florida lawmakers attempt to close a state budget deficit that is running close to $2.5 billion.

The canvas tents are quicker and cheaper to erect than alternative housing solutions, such as temporary rigid housing units or conventional construction buildings, officials say.

During the 1970s and ’80s, overcrowding forced state prison officials to house inmates in similar tents, which were used to accommodate newly admitted inmates awaiting assignment to a permanent facility. In Costello v. Wainwright (1977), courts ruled the housing conditions unconstitutional.