ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As lawmakers file bills to reform Florida prisons and the sentences that bring people there, nonprofit Florida Caresrecently staged a mock prison cell in St. Petersburg to give people a closer look at what life is like locked up.
The group advocates for fair treatment of those often forgotten — individuals incarcerated in state prisons.
The "Beat the Heat" challenge is meant to raise awareness of the extreme heat inside Florida prisons for prisoners and correctional officers alike and invites the public to spend three minutes inside the mock prison cell with no air conditioning and little ventilation.
MORE COVERAGE: CRISIS IN CORRECTIONS
Most Florida prisons, 85%, do not have air conditioning.
The size and space are meant to mimic an actual prison cell — the sink, sheets, bed frame, uniform, are all the same.
But for Laurette Philipsen, while the prison cell may be mock, the memories are very real.
“It took a while before I was actually able to step into the cell," she told the ABC Action News I-Team. "Even to this day, closing that door is really hard for me. And the scars, you know, that stay with you."
Dec. 3, 2009, is forever ingrained in Philipsen's memory as Day 1 of eight and a half years spent as a state prisoner for grand theft. It's because of her time inside Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala that she now spends her days volunteering for Florida Cares, educating the public and lawmakers about the realities of a system the Florida Department of Corrections' own secretary says is in crisis.
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Philipsen says the state's largest agency and third-largest prison system in the country do nothing to correct behavior the way the Department of Corrections name would imply. They warehouse.
The I-Team requested an interview with Secretary Mark Inch before he recently announced his retirement, but he declined our request.
When asked what the uniform inside the mock prison cell represents to her, she replied, "I detest the color blue. So many lives that are wasted inside. Because they’re in way too long.”
Lamakers have filed several bills for this upcoming session related to sentencing reform, including establishing a conditional medical release program for certain inmates and parole eligibility.
"Things never leave you, even after three and a half years," Philipsen said, referring to the time she's been out of prison. "They’re embedded in you."
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.