LAKELAND — Arvaus Wormley stepped out of the prison transport van wearing bright red Fila sneakers, cargo shorts and a plain black T-shirt — clothing a friend had sent him.
After five years of incarceration, his only other possessions were a state ID, reading glasses, some loose paperwork and $50 from the prison system on a prepaid debit card. He had a bunk at the homeless shelter but no job or permanent place to live.
Wormley had originally come down to Lakeland from New Jersey to be with an aunt and uncle, who died while he was behind bars.
When he got out of Polk Correctional Institution in April, there was nobody.
Wormley is among nearly 22,000 inmates scheduled for release this year — and one of about 55,000 who will walk out of state prison by 2024.
Officials estimate as many as a third of them will have no direct family or friends to lean on. Like Wormley, they are almost completely reliant upon the support of the system.
In Florida, that doesn’t amount to much.
“People are getting $50 and a bus pass after serving seven to 10 years,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has led recent efforts to reform Florida’s prison system. “You are not reintegrating them into society. You are just saying good luck.”
A six-month investigation by the GateHouse Media, the newspaper chain that owns The News-Journal, found educational opportunities are evaporating for inmates within the Florida Department of Corrections.
Polk Correctional is a poster child for the problems. Florida’s largest re-entry center, with a primary mission to prepare inmates for release, Polk C.I. was forced to shut down its educational programming for about nine months after struggling to fill its lone academic teaching position.
With fewer inmates receiving basic education, violence is on the rise at the institution. And the prison is consistently outperformed by smaller re-entry centers across the state when it comes to educational programming.
The result has left inmates unprepared for life on the outside.
“Once a person leaves the Department of Corrections, they are no longer a government problem or concern,” said Barbara Richards, who runs Project 180 in Sarasota, a program designed to help offenders transition upon release. “I see these young men and women who are so capable and just want to do the right thing. … We just need to provide them tools to make that happen.”
Prison officials cite programs designed to help with life skills, industry training and career placement.
They also say Polk is improving as an institution. The state hired a new warden, rolled out new educational programs this spring and found a teacher for the GED class, which is back up and running.
But almost half of the inmates in Florida prisons have been incarcerated at least once before — and the share of them with more than three prior prison stints is growing.
“They just left me on the street with $50 to fend for myself,” Wormley said. “I’m stuck. If I miss this 4 p.m. (curfew) at the shelter, I sleep outside.”
‘I broke the law’
Visiting a relative at Lakeland Regional Medical Center in 2014, a man, his wife and her brother were leaving the hospital cafeteria, waiting for the elevator, when they noticed Wormley approaching. He was wearing a black backpack and complaining about the long walk.
Wormley got onto the elevator, asked where the family was headed and hit the fourth-floor button. He quietly stood behind, and as they left, Wormley snatched a wallet from the man’s back pocket.
Before the elevator door could close, the man realized what had happened, went after Wormley and yelled for help. Wormley shoved him to the ground, escaped the elevator and ran down the hall.
“My intent was to get him out of that elevator,” the victim told Lakeland Police. “Of course, everything was happening, you know, so fast.”
As Wormley fled, the victim’s 59-year-old wife tried to slow him down. Wormley pushed her in the chest, causing her to fall.
The brothers chased Wormley through the hospital, eventually losing sight of him in a stairwell.
As the emergency “Code Five” message blasted across the intercom, Wormley ran full speed into a nurse, knocking him down to the floor.
He then pushed another nurse along the way and shoved a security guard on the stairs, where he was finally pinned and handcuffed.
Lakeland police later found the brown wallet in a trash can. Wormley had taken a $10 bill, some Canadian money and a blank check.
The victims were left with bruises but no serious injuries.
While in custody, Wormley told police he was hallucinating on acid. Covered in sweat, he was out of breath and urinated in his pants. He admitted to stealing the wallet and pushing the people, arrest records show.
When asked if he always used acid, Wormley told authorities “I usually just smoke crack.”
Now 52, Wormley says he still does not remember why he was at the hospital that day, how he got there or the exact details of what transpired.
Prosecutors charged him with robbery and two counts of battery on an emergency care provider.
It wasn’t his first brush with the law. Wormley had an extensive and violent criminal history from New Jersey, including aggravated assault, robbery, resisting an officer and carrying a concealed weapon. He also did time in a Florida prison from 2008 to 2009.
Because of his past, Wormley scored 90.4 points on his sentencing scoresheet, which weighs the severity of the crime and contributing factors to recommend punishment.
The guidelines called for a minimum of nearly four years in prison. As part of a guilty plea to avoid trial, a judge sentenced him to six years instead.
“I can’t change the situation,” Wormley said. “I broke the law, and now I’m fighting an uphill battle.”
‘Need more teachers’
Wormley spent the majority of his sentence at Polk Correctional Institution, a sprawling facility over 49 razor-fenced acres, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Lakeland.
He already had a GED, so there were not many educational opportunities available. Wormley wanted vocational training, but the classes were always either full or shut down because nobody was there to teach, he said.
Instead, he left with a printed certificate to show he’d been rehabilitated — and little hope to get out of the homeless shelter. His only plan was to knock on doors, trying to earn cash by trimming trees.
“I took all of the programs that were available to me,” Wormley said. “They were no help.”
Wormley will admit he is not much of a self-starter. Education was never a priority for him growing up on the streets. He says he wants to change but just needs an assist.
“They don’t do anything for you,” Wormley said of the prison system. “The time I did, I put in my dues. But now, they put you back in a bad situation.”
Polk Correctional is the state’s largest re-entry center, with about 1,200 inmates at its primary facilities, most of them set to be released within the next three years and return to Polk, Hillsborough or Pinellas counties. The primary mission is to prepare offenders for life after prison, the assistant warden said.
Polk offers general GED prep, along with vocational courses in plumbing, computer electronics and marine technology.
But recently, staffing woes forced the facility to shut down its education classes altogether.
The prison has just one academic teaching position, and the job was vacant for some nine months after the former teacher resigned for medical reasons. As a result, the facility had to halt its GED prep from at least September through April.
Two of the facility’s three vocational teaching jobs also sat vacant for months, forcing the prison to temporarily close those programs as well.
One inmate said he was taking an automotive technology class that abruptly switched to marine technology before the instructor eventually quit.
Turnover has beset the entire institution. Nearly 40 percent of the prison’s staff from three years ago is no longer on the payroll.
Prison officials point to recent plans to bolster education at Polk C.I. The prison hired a new GED teacher this spring. The prison also offers the Pride program, which employs inmates to make certain products, training them in vocation, while selling the items and sending the profits to victims of crimes. Even then, inmates must be self-starters.
“Pride has been helping me obtain some certification but there’s no teachers,” inmate Jason Bradley said. “I simply study on my own and every few months test out.”
In May, Abe Brown Ministries rolled out its “Ready 4 Work” program at Polk C.I. The classes provide job placement assistance through career development courses, GEDs, case management and life coaching, a prison spokeswoman said.
Prison officials said University of South Florida faculty will be providing supplemental literacy to 50 inmates at Polk C.I., with a focus on those who read below the sixth grade level.
And Polk State College helps up to 20 students at a time through a 10-week course for industry certifications in occupational safety and manufacturing.
But those programs only reach a small number of the prison’s 1,200 inmates. Top administrators at the institution are pleading for more.
“Considering the fact we’re the largest re-entry center in the state, we need more teachers to adequately serve 1,200 inmates,” Ann Casey, an assistant warden at Polk, told Florida senators earlier this year. “Not to mention, programming reduces inmate idleness and increases their employment opportunities.”
The problems include the decrepit condition of Polk C.I.’s 43-year-old buildings. At the main unit, prison officials would like to use a 10,000-square-foot building for educational programming. But the structure has been vacant for four years because of roof damage and three broken air conditioning units, with no funding for the repairs.
“Polk Correctional Center is ripe for reform and increasing education and staffing levels is an important part of that,” Casey said. “This is a pay me now or pay me later issue. If we don’t address the issues now by investing money on the front end, then we’re going to pay for it on the back end, which is likely to result in increased recidivism and its related costs.”
The state hired John DeBell as warden this year to turn Polk around. DeBell has worked for the department since 1990, most recently as the warden of Sumter Correctional Institution in the Panhandle, which has one of the highest graduation rates per capita among non-re-entry facilities.
Prison officials denied requests to interview DeBell or other administrators at the institution. The state also rejected repeated requests by GateHouse Media to tour the prison.
Several electronic messages sent by journalists to inmates at Polk C.I., asking about the conditions there and programs available, were redacted or undelivered due to the content, inmates said.
During an interview with the Heartland Crime Stoppers show posted to Polk County Government’s YouTube channel in May, DeBell spoke highly of the prison’s programs, emphasizing GED prep and vocational training.
He described Polk C.I. as a “college campus with a fence around it,” and he said the re-entry center was driven by the mantra of “producing a better product than what came in the gates.”
“These guys are going to be released,” DeBell said. “You have to have an understanding that they are coming to a neighborhood near you.”
‘I ain’t going back’
At 1:48 p.m., Wormley stepped onto the curb behind the state building in downtown Lakeland as a free man.
He had just a few seconds to take in the moment before a corrections worker whisked him into the building for an appointment with his probation officer.
That left him about an hour before managers closed the doors at Talbot House, the homeless shelter where he’d be staying.
His first stop was the bank to cash out his $50 from the prison system. The money came loaded onto a JPay debit card, which signed a contract with the department of corrections in 2017. Every financial transaction involving inmates passes through JPay’s accounts.
Wormley had no idea how to activate the card. At the ATM, he struggled to use the machine and needed more help. He could only pull $40, after the $4 withdraw fee. The remaining $6 lay wasted.
Wormley grabbed a free bag of popcorn from the downtown bank lobby. It was the best thing he’d eaten in years.
Next was the post office. Wormley hoped his stepsister had sent a package with clothes, a phone and basic supplies. But there was nothing.
He decided to spend his first few bucks on a pack of Newport 100 cigarettes. He considered a beer but left the corner store without one.
Wormley also wanted to grab some fast food. There wasn’t time for that either. He needed to get back to Talbot House by 4 p.m. — where the bunks were a slight upgrade over his living conditions at the prison — or he would be sleeping on the street.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do tonight,” Wormley said. “But I gotta maintain. I’m 52 years old; I ain’t going back.”
‘I’d rather go to jail’
Wormley swung between a determination to stay on the right path and the urge to run.
Even for a man who’d spent time behind bars, the homeless shelter in Lakeland was deflating. Like prison, residents must go to bed when the lights go out. Drinking is forbidden, and the food is bad. Other homeless men loiter around the front of the building. One of them asked Wormley for $2. Drugs are easy to find in the neighborhood. Jobs are not.
Wormley considered the idea of just skipping town. He could head to South Carolina to visit a friend, and deal with the consequences later. Plus, the punishment of another stint behind bars seemed better than conditional release, which he and many other offenders have had a penchant for violating.
“Catch me,” he said. “I’d rather go to jail.”
Terms of his release called for a 10 p.m. curfew. He had to remain in the county, check in regularly with a probation officer and keep clean from drugs as part of a substance abuse treatment program.
Within weeks, he was a wanted fugitive.
Wormley skipped his May 15 probation appointment, left the shelter and quit his job with New Generation Tree and Landscape — prompting authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest.
The freedom did not last long.
In the early hours of June 9 — roughly six weeks after he vowed never to return — Wormley was driving a golf cart without headlights in the middle of the road in Lake Hamilton, roughly 25 miles east of Lakeland.
When police pulled him over, Wormley had trouble spelling his name. But he was wearing a hospital bracelet on his right arm that identified him, arrest records show.
Wormley is back behind bars in Polk County Jail. His case will be heard by the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
“This is an unsustainable approach,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “A big part of what we do in prisons has to be rehabilitative. It’s a failure to reconcile with the idea that these folks will be coming out one day.”