On July 24, 2004, then-governor Jeb Bush received a frantic email from Joy Buchholz about the conditions in her daughter’s prison.
Buchholz explained her daughter wanted to be in one of the faith-based prisons Bush helped establish because she expected the conditions to be better than they would have been otherwise.
But that wasn’t the case.
“It has turned out to be a work camp, they work them constantly even on weekends & it was 8PM & they were still outside, laying sod & moving 300lb slabs of concrete,” Buchholz wrote. “One was so tired she dropped it on her foot another 63 yr old woman who bunks w/Dawn [her daughter] moans all night in pain & can hardly move in the AM.”
“i will look into the situation,” Bush replied. “The faith based prison should be no more or less difficult/easy than other like kind prisons.”
The email is one of thousands from Jeb Bush’s governorship and provides a window into not only how his fledging program was received, but also how he and his administration dealt with the concerns surrounding an increasingly over-crowded prison population in Florida.
Over the following days, Buchholz’s missives grew frantic. Her daughter wasn’t getting adequate dental treatment, she wrote, and she was in excruciating pain.
Then she emails James Crosby, the secretary of the Department of Corrections.
“The Govenor sd he was going to look into the matter & NOTHING was done at all,” she writes. “I’m sure something would have been done if it was his daughter!”
Crosby’s response sounds chagrined. They sent her daughter to a dentist, he wrote, they checked up on her medical care, they have a new warden for the institution, and they’ve had higher-ups check on the institution’s work programs.
Plus, he notes, only three women ever asked to be taken out of the program that Buchholz describes as so nightmarish.
“Since her arrival on December 19, 2003, at Lowell CI, you have sent 71 e-mails to me and 3 to medical,” Crosby wrote. “At your request, we have transferred her three times over a six month period, and again have a pending transfer to work release. A review of your requests and my responses show a significant amount of personal attention on the part of many has been taken to try and ensure Dawn is both appropriately cared for and that she is offered every opportunity.”
Buchholz’s next email to Bush was totally different, and crushingly human. The subject line is “apologize,” and she was sorry.
“Sometimes she’s like a little girl so helpless & I get too protective like an animal if somone comes near her babies,” she writes. “I want you to know I feel for all these women & would also fight like crazy if I heard someone was hurting your daughter. That could be me in there & I never forget that. I will not bother you two men again but will ALWAYS remember the two of you as good men in a crazy world.”
Florida’s character- and faith-based prisons—like the one that held Buchholz’s daughter—is one of the success stories from his tenure as governor that Bush will likely cite on the campaign trail, should he decide to run.
At the New Hampshire First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit last weekend, literature handed out by Bush’s Right to Rise PAC listed the faith-based prisons among a smorgasbord of his conservative accomplishments.
“To foster the rehabilitation of inmates, Governor Bush also opened the nation's first entirely faith-based prison at Lawtey Correctional Institution in North Florida,” his PAC trumpets.
That’s a pretty loaded sentence, as the mother above understood. There’s debate about whether these programs actually fostered rehabilitation, and they also drew substantial criticism and legal challenges for being too intertwined with religious faith.
And Bush’s record on criminal justice issues could present challenges for him on the campaign trail, since it’s hard to distill into a handy talking point. But it could also bring interesting opportunities.
In 2003, Bush signed legislation to have some prisons and prison dormitories take on entirely faith- and character-based programming and to have a massive influx of unpaid volunteers—most of whom came from churches near the prisons—pour into the facilities to teach and mentor prisoners.
These volunteers provided free labor, which saved the state a substantial chunk of money. And the programs, still in place, seem popular.
A 2009 report from the state’s Office of Program Analysis and Government Accountability said there were 8,890 inmates on a waiting list to get into the institution-based programs (or the programs that encompass entire prisons) and another 1,600 waiting to get into character- and faith-based dorms.
Vicki Lopez, who chaired the governor’s Ex-Offender Task Force, said the new prison programming had a dramatic impact on incarcerated people’s quality of life.
“There was this notion that redemption was possible, and I believe Governor Bush absolutely believes that,” she said.
She even heard from prison guards who said the new environment had begun to change them.
Allison DeFoor, who chairs Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, is an Episcopal priest and volunteer prison chaplain at the Wakulla Correctional Institution.
DeFoor said the faith- and character-based programming makes the prison feel calm and sane.
“It is unlike any prison I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “It is a profoundly different place—with the exception of Lawtey.”
He added that levels of violence and tension are far lower than in conventional prisons.
“You can feel it in the air,” he said.
What’s more, because of the volunteer involvement, these programs cost the state nothing.
But they’ve highlighted some of the larger, systemic problems that Bush was unable to fix. Budget cuts, for example, hit prisons hard.
Many Florida prisons didn’t (and still don’t) have air conditioning. Lopez recalled walking into a conventional prison dorm without air conditioning that housed pregnant women.
“It looked like something out of the old South,” she said.
That wouldn’t have happened in a faith- and character-based prison, she added, because volunteers often become outspoken advocates for prisoners.
And DeFoor noted that making larger policy changes—like sentencing rules that can give nonviolent offenders lengthy terms—is incredibly difficult. Florida’s tough-on-crime culture means prisons get short-circuited when the budget is getting written and that convicted criminals get lengthy, onerous sentences. So while it’s politically painless to get volunteers into prisons, it proved formidable to shorten nonviolent offenders’ time there.
“On the front end, which is sentencing reform, that was very difficult in Florida, and it remains highly difficult,” Lopez said. “The state has always been known as ‘hard on crime.’”
Changing Florida’s affinity for jam-packed prisons isn’t easy.
“The system wants more prisoners,” DeFoor said. “Don’t kid yourself. The cultural ethos of the corrections system is to grow.”
And the fact that Bush wasn’t able to change that ethos may be an issue for him on the campaign trail. In his first year as governor he signed a bill that increased some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for juvenile offenders.
It will present a particularly sharp contrast with Rick Perry, the outspoken, gun-totin’ former Texas governor who signed off on sweeping criminal justice reforms that reduced recidivism rates, shuttered a handful of prisons, and saved the state a bunch of money.
(Not to mention contenders like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), was has advocated for changing the mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders on the federal level.)
Perry’s reforms paved the way for other states to focus on being smart about crime, instead of merely tough.
“At some point, we have to say ‘Enough is enough’ to young people who are dangerously out of control,” he said at the time, per the Sun Sentinel.
So, while Bush’s reforms showed that prison didn’t have to be as bad as it was—they also show his limits as a reformer.