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Singletary Dead at 63

Harry Singletary Jr., the first African-American to run the Florida prison system died Friday. The Tarpon Springs native and Tallahassee resident was 63.

Singletary spent eight years at the helm during the tenure of the late Lawton Chiles, heading the agency during a period marked by a rapid increase in the state’s inmate population, which rose from 46,233 to 68,599 between 1991 and 1999.

During Singletary’s tenure, prison overcrowding became a hot topic and led to legal challenges from inmates. To combat overcrowding and comply with federal requirements, Florida lawmakers had since the mid 1980s enacted a series of early release and gain-time provisions.

By 1993, inmates were serving, on average, approximately 35 percent of their prison sentences, a situation that raised public concern. Lawmakers responded by curtailing many of the early release efforts and the state when on a prison building binge to increase capacity.

In 1995, lawmakers passed legislation that required violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. While keeping prisoners longer, Singletary also orchestrated the expansion of inmate programs in an effort to reduce recidivism and better prepare inmates for life in the outside world.

“Mr. Singletary had a profound and positive impact on individual employees, and an equally important and lasting impact on this department as well, for which we can all be grateful,” DOC Secretary Walt McNeil said in a statement Tuesday.

Former employers said Singletary was a personable leader who empowered employees and demanded professionalism. Singletary often traveled to correctional institutions around the state to get a firsthand look at conditions and employee morale. He called it “management by walking around” and was known for taking the time to get to know employees.

“He changed peoples’ lives – he certainly changed mine,” said former Personnel Bureau Chief Shawn Baldwin, who at Singletary’s urging went on to earn a master’s degree and became a director at a regional service center in Marianna. “Harry had expectations for my life that I didn’t even have for myself.”

Singletary attended Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College), and earned a master’s degree in social service from the University of Chicago. He began his professional criminal justice career in Illinois before moving to Florida.

Services are set for 11 a.m. Saturday at Timberland Church of Christ in Tallahassee. Culley's MeadowWood Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

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