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Prisons set to buy sporting goods

State law now apparently allows prisons to purchase recreation equipment for inmates. Some officials cry foul.

©Associated Press

June 20, 2002

State law now apparently allows prisons to purchase recreation equipment for inmates. Some officials cry foul.

STARKE -- Florida prisons plan to buy basketballs and other sports gear under a new law that allows the purchase of "wellness equipment" -- and apparently reverses a ban on purchases of recreation equipment for inmates.

The Legislature barred the purchase of weight lifting and other recreational equipment, including televisions, in 1994, saying inmates who were supposed to be serving hard time spent too much time pursuing leisure activities.

One senator said Wednesday that a change in the 8-year-old policy was not the intent of lawmakers when they overwhelmingly passed the bill (SB 560) during the regular session in February and March.

"The exercise they're supposed to get is working in the yard, working on the side of the road, working in the community -- not playing basketball," said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, a candidate for state attorney general.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, allows prison officials to buy or rent "wellness equipment" along with televisions and other audiovisual equipment for educational purposes. It still bars the purchase of weightlifting equipment.

The Senate passed the bill 35-1 in February; the House, 109-4 in March. Gov. Jeb Bush signed it in late May.

"It changes the policy a little bit, but rightfully so," said Sen. Howard Futch, R-Indialantic, who sponsored the bill at the request of prison guards.

Officers told Futch that inmates need sports equipment to improve their health and to keep them busy when they aren't working or in school.

Department of Corrections officials, who oversee 72,000 inmates in 131 prisons, consider exercise and other activities an important part of prison security. Inmates with unstructured time are potentially dangerous, they said.

Al Dominguez, the agency's director of legislative affairs, said inmates won't be getting stationary bikes or other exercise equipment found in health clubs. Instead, prisons most likely will buy basketballs, volleyballs, softballs and other team sports equipment, he said.

"There are some prisons that only have one basketball for the entire population," Dominguez said.

Burt's reaction to that: "I want to know why they have one basketball."

Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said corrections officials specifically told lawmakers the money would not be spent on sports equipment.

Instead, he said, it is supposed to be used on basic workout equipment, such as exercise bikes, treadmills, jump ropes and similar equipment -- "the things that you would use to build your cardiovascular system, to lose weight and to stay physically healthy."

Crist, R-Tampa, said if prisons spend the money on recreational equipment, "we will turn it back to the way it used to be and be less trusting of their requests in the future."

Gary A. Boyd, president of the National Correctional Recreation Association, an organization of prison officials that promotes recreation for inmates, applauded the change.

The nationwide trend has been to cut recreational and other programs in prisons, primarily because of tight budgets, Boyd said. "I applaud their ingenuity in finding a way to finance a recreational program," he said.

Florida inmates with no disciplinary problems are allowed time for recreation after they complete work or school assignments. If an inmate has no disciplinary problems for 120 days, that could include weight lifting.

The purchases will be made through the Inmate Welfare Fund, which receives commissions on inmate telephone calls and canteen sales. The fund is used for a variety of inmate services, including education and drug abuse programs, legal library services and chaplains. It had about $30-million in fiscal 2000-01.

Since 1994, prisons have relied on church groups and others to donate recreational equipment. In some cases, guards have brought equipment from home.

State Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, a leading proponent of making life behind bars tougher when he served as a state senator, said he was adamantly opposed to giving inmates more recreational opportunities.

"We are talking about people who murdered, raped and robbed the citizens of Florida -- prison is not a place for fun and games," said Crist (not related to Victor Crist), also a Republican candidate for attorney general.

Crist, dubbed "Chain Gang Charlie" for helping to bring back prison chain gangs in Florida in the mid-1990s, said inmates should use their time for other pursuits, such as working and growing food for the prison system.

"There are productive ways to keep these people busy," he said.

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