As Lt. Ralph Palmer walked through the epicenter of Tomoka State Correctional Institution in between barbed wire buffer zones for the first time five months ago, armed with only his ID badge and embroidered Maitland Police Department polo, he knew he’d made a mistake.
“I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of those people who were looking at me, other than that I was going to be their dinner,” Palmer said.
For the 10 times he visited the prison over the next four months, his police-labeled polo never entered the gates with him. “I probably still looked like a cop, but I tried not to anyway,” he said.
A year prior, Police Chief Doug Ball presented Palmer with a challenge: find a way to refurbish one of the fire department’s old rescue vehicles into a new police mobile command center, and, do it with no taxpayer dollars.
Six months later, Palmer found an answer to the chief’s seemingly impossible assignment in the prison yards of Tokoma. With the help of PRIDE – Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. – and $86,000 in seized drug money, Palmer debuted the completed mobile command center last month.
To learn more about PRIDE Enterprises and the services it offers inmates and law enforcement, visit pride-enterprises.org
Inside and out, inmates took the old truck and tricked it out into a state-of-the-art crime-watch vehicle to serve as a mobile communication hub for the police department during ongoing case investigations. From missing persons to homicides and traffic accidents, Ball said the command center will help the police department improve its on-scene services.
Palmer designed the truck and made weekly trips to Tokoma prison in Volusia County to oversee PRIDE workers, inmates serving sentences from two years to life. Jeff Bennett, industry manager for PRIDE at Tokoma, said the program helps rehabilitate inmates with skills and certifications that will serve them when they’re back on the outside, and provides law enforcement divisions nationwide with low-cost labor in a wide range of industries.
“When they get out they’re skilled and certified, and they can hopefully get jobs and won’t end up back in,” Bennett said. “It’s a win-win really.”
When the vehicle was presented to the Maitland City Council at their meeting last month, Council members said they were equally as impressed with the outcome as Palmer was when he watched the PRIDE workers in action.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Palmer said. “Those are people who’ve made mistakes, and they’re paying for them, but I learned that they’re some very talented people in our prison system.”
And after sending the truck back to prison a few times to fix some tweaks, this week, Palmer said, the Maitland-emblazoned command center is ready to hit the streets.