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Editorial: Reforming Florida's prisons

Associated Press
The state Department of Corrections under Secretary Michael Crews appears to be serious about making systemic changes in prisons.

The state Department of Corrections appears to be serious about making systemic changes in prisons. Thirty-two officers were fired last week for violations ranging from participating in the gassing death of an inmate to using force against prisoners. The firings are the latest in a series of housecleaning efforts, and the department took an important first step toward transparency earlier this month when it launched an online database detailing inmate deaths. These are positive steps toward Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews' promise to make the agency and its workers more accountable and transparent. But it will be a long-term endeavor to reform a department that has long been resistant to change.

The corrections department is under scrutiny after a series of Miami Herald reports this spring that examined suspicious inmate deaths in Florida prisons. The newspaper found several cases where inmates died after being abused or neglected by corrections officers. Darren Rainey, 50, collapsed and died in 2012 after guards left him in a scalding shower for nearly two hours. Rainey, who was mentally ill, was being punished for defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up. Corrections department officials said allegations of abuse and subsequent coverups were the result of a few bad apples and that the entire staff would be held to greater account.

In August, Crews pledged systemwide reforms, including getting rid of staff who broke the law or department policy. On Friday, 32 officers employed at prisons around the state were fired, including three former guards at Franklin Correctional Institution who were connected with the gassing death of 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo. So far this month, Crews has fired 45 officers around the state for violations ranging from battering inmates to driving with a suspended license.

Earlier in the month, the department launched the transparency database, which is located at www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/mortality/index.html and is searchable by facility. It allows users to view the status of each investigation and manner of death. It includes summary reports for all 2014 closed, non-natural death investigations that are conducted by the department. It will eventually contain information for all inmate deaths over a 14-year period.

Given the nature of prisons, the potential for abuse is rampant. And Florida has had its share of prison problems, including at the highest levels. In 2006, for example, former corrections Secretary James Crosby resigned and went to federal prison for accepting kickbacks from prison vendors.

It should not have taken pressure from the media to get the corrections department to institute major reforms. But now that it has, the department should be commended for moving quickly to implement its new disciplinary policy for wayward employees and for opening its records. Both are good starts in an attempt to change a culture that has long operated unchecked by outsiders. Crews should keep it up.