July 2, 2020
Secretary's Message to Inmates and Offenders: Find a Mentor
On my desk is a large stack of letters and printed emails. Most of these letters are from you in response to my last message, “Find Meaning.” I have read over half of the letters. I will read all of them. Though the requests in most letters and messages are handled by my staff, I do make a point to read everything that comes in. I learn and gain perspective from each of you, and your family and friends, that take the time to write, to share, to advise, and even to complain and criticize. I use your individual requests and observations to direct overall planning priorities and shape program development for our entire agency. You influence what I put in my annual budget request to improve our agency.
As I read the first group of letters, I was impacted by many of your stories, dreams, and regrets. After one gentleman wrote of his past struggles and hopes for the future, he asked, “Do you have any advice or wisdom that you could share with someone like me?” That struck me. Who on my staff answers that question?! We have all faced situations and challenges that seem so much bigger than our own wisdom, our own resources and cleverness? We have all wished at some point for someone who cares, someone with more wisdom or maybe just perspective, and the time to show us the way past a hard place?
I wanted to jump in my car and drive to Wakulla CI, just to answer that one question. But the truth is, a mentor must invest time to build a meaningful relationship, to be open, real, and available to answer hundreds of questions over months and years. Who steps forward to be that man’s coach, counselor, and mentor. Where do we find such men and women of character, with enough life’s experiences and wisdom, in the large numbers necessary to help all of you in your personal walk?
As shown in your letters, there are many of you that step forward, formally and informally, to help your fellow dorm or cell mate. You have chosen now to live a life of character and promise. You have learned some of life’s hardest lessons, and that has impacted your decision on how you live now. I thank each and every one of you that reaches out with compassion to help a man or woman in need. That is commendable. We will do more to create formal avenues for such peer-to-peer mentorship.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, and the temporary suspension of most programs, you may have not noticed that Volunteer Appreciation Week came and went. The second hardest decision I had to make during this pandemic, after suspending visitation, was to suspend volunteers from entering our facilities and probation offices. With one decision, I blocked over 8,000 men and women that give of their personal time, to invest in you. The volunteers invested over 275,000 hours of service last year with you. Though the decision was necessary, especially during the height of the pandemic to protect you and our staff, you temporarily lost direct access to over 8,000 mentors.
Though there are many staff in the FDC committed and fully dedicated to your care, rehabilitation, and restoration, I wonder how many of you look to our volunteers as your primary mentor. I am sure not a single FDC staff member resents you for seeking out a volunteer for counsel and support. In fact, we encourage you to do just that. Our agency once had over 20,000 volunteers! My goal is to get us back to that number, and more, on your behalf.
If you do not have a mentor, look to our volunteers and the programs they offer. They will share with you their life’s experiences and wisdom. They can support you now and support you even more as you return to your community. They are there in your communities to welcome you home. But you must reach out. This is a decision only you can make. And even if it will be weeks or months before we can fully reestablish our volunteer base and programs, you can make your decision TODAY to reach out.
In that stack of letters, a second gentleman wrote, “If you could give me one thing what would I want? It’s hard to say but whatever it was I’d want it to be something that makes me a better person… An ear that actually listens, a heart that truly cares, an opportunity to utilize the technology offered to receive a meaningful education.” Though expanding staff and educational/vocational programs takes time and resources (and we will continue to work on that!), welcoming back good-hearted volunteers to our institutions and offices to mentor, coach and teach again, began this month at select facilities.
We are now at a stage of the pandemic that many facilities and offices can resume some programming and reintroduce an initial group of volunteers, under certain conditions and modified procedures. Unfortunately, we are not yet able to resume full normal operations and visitation. Your warden or circuit administrator will provide you details of programs which will start over the coming weeks, and under what levels of participation we can safely run those programs. This will be a slow acceleration back to normal operations over the Summer and Fall (and we may even have to pump the brakes a few times); just not a 0 to 60 MPH in 3.2 seconds. But it is good to be on the path to recovery from this pandemic and I appreciate each and every one of you for your cooperation during these challenging times.
Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections
As Florida's largest state agency, and the third largest state prison system in the country, FDC employs 24,000 members, incarcerates 80,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders in the community.