Saturday, December 16, 2017
Politics

Romano: Why broken prisons could lead to prison breaks

In no particular order, this is what concerns people most about prisons:

1. They should be built far from my home.

2. They should be absolutely secure.

And that's pretty much it. You might hear some protesting about inhumane conditions. You might hear someone arguing that the Department of Corrections doesn't put enough emphasis on either education or drug rehab to cut down on recidivism.

Otherwise, the welfare of prisons is not a typical conversation starter.

And yet, because this is Florida, and we rarely do anything with either logic or foresight, that's probably a mistake.

Turns out, we have some serious economic problems in our prison system, and that just might make those facilities less secure and worry-free than we've been led to believe.

Last week, union officials representing corrections officers asked the state to call an emergency legislative session because Florida's prisons were "a ticking time bomb." Considering the union has a vested interest and has some internal politics going on, as well, you might be tempted to dismiss the "ticking time bomb" business as mere rhetoric.

But, less than a year ago, an independent audit of Florida prisons determined they had a "staffing emergency" and were at increased risk of murders, riots and escapes.

And a few months ago, Gov. Rick Scott and DOC Secretary Julie Jones asked for funding to hire more than 700 new guards. The Legislature provided 215 in its budget.

So what does all of this mean?

Perhaps ticking time bomb is not total hyperbole.

A prison in Franklin County has had three disturbances already this year, including a riot in June in which about 300 inmates took over two dorms for three hours. In a Lake City facility, a guard was stabbed and several others injured in a melee in April.

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has visited more than 40 Florida prisons in the past year to check on conditions for inmates and other issues, and has come away concerned that the state is wasting money by trying to save money.

Prison guards have not had pay increases in more than eight years — the average salary is less than $32,000 — and turnover is rampant. Guards are put through a 13-week training course and often, after a short time on the job, leave for more money to work at county jails or for other law enforcement agencies.

The result is the state's prisons are constantly understaffed and ridiculously inexperienced. And when you've got unhappy and overworked guards, chances are you're going to have mistreated and unhappy inmates. That can lead to incidents and lawsuits.

Richardson had no plans to make prison reform a crusade, but the more he investigated conditions, the more he was convinced that the entire culture needed to be addressed.

The problem is few others in the Legislature seem to care.

"Somebody said to me, 'You'll never get a single vote or campaign contribution out of a prison, so why are you doing it?' " Richards said. "Sometimes you do something just because it's right.

"Even if you don't have an ounce of compassion for the inmates or the officers, if you focus on the fiscal side … there is a way to do this better, reduce the (prison) population and use that money for other state priorities."

As usual, it is a matter of shortsightedness in Tallahassee. Legislators want to cut instead of invest. Even when cutting costs more money in the long run.

This isn't strictly about protecting inmates from overworked guards. And it isn't solely about protecting guards from mistreated inmates.

It's about protecting the prison system from a political time bomb.

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