Florida House version of prison reform whittled down, rejects independent prison oversight

Published March 23 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A 51-page prison reform bill intended to weed out abuse and corruption at the state's troubled corrections agency has been whittled down to a modest 12 pages in the House amid quiet opposition from Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

The House proposal abandons the Senate plan (SB 7020) to require the agency to be held accountable to an oversight board which would dilute the ability of the governor to have complete control over the agency.

House leaders instead intend to address the state's prison problems by increasing staffing levels and provide more building repairs, as has been requested by DOC Secretary Julie Jones.

"Ultimately, the governor is accountable for the actions of the secretary and the secretary is accountable for the success of the department,'' said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee which will hear the bill, PCB CRJS 15-07, on Tuesday. "If the department is a failure, they need to search for new leadership."

Trujillo said that while he agrees an oversight board "could be productive," House leadership believes it could also create "a layer of bureaucracy" and so the House bill "is a work in progress."

The Senate bill will be debated by the full Senate also on Tuesday. The House bill tracks the Senate bill word-for-word but with major exceptions: It eliminates the independent oversight commission that would follow the model of several other states and the Florida Department of Transportation by creating a Florida Corrections Commission that would hold agency officials accountable for prison budgets, discipline and investigations.

The House plan also removes the requirement that the Department of Corrections secretary report to both the governor and the Cabinet, removes the Senate plan to clarify inmate grievance rights as well as a plan to allow the commission staff to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors. It removes additional oversight of prison medical care and more transparent reporting of use of force by prison guards against inmates.

Left in the House bill is a plan to increase prison building inspections, require specialized training for sexual abuse investigations, remove the opportunity for gain time for sexual offenders and increase the opportunity for gain time for inmates that get a GED, saving the state about $1.2 million a year.

The House bill also requires the state to more accurately estimate the number of elderly inmates in the system and provide for more "security audits." It makes the existing Memorandum of Understanding, which requires that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate all suspicious deaths at DOC, a matter of law.

In lieu of additional reforms, the House will focus on restoring money to the chronically underfunded prison system, proposing $16 million to fill an operating deficit and hire new corrections officers, $11 million to increase food service costs, $15 million for fixed capital outlay and $2.6 million to replace aging buses, vans and cars. The Senate budget includes additional funding for similar programs.

But the House bill is a non-starter for the Senate leaders, who have made the reforms a priority in the wake of reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency's chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

"The House bill does not address the problem and anything short of what we have proposed is far too minimal,'' said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee who has conducted surprise visits at nearly a dozen prisons.

He said he is confident in Jones' ability to turn the agency around but believes "she needs tools and working with this commission could help her get there."

Spokesmen for Gov. Scott and Jones refused requests to comment on the bill but Jones has told legislators she will "fix what needs to be fixed" at the agency and has lobbied against the oversight commission.

Jones has also steadfastly defended the officials at DOC, including Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, who have dismissed allegations that prison officials caused or contributed to several suspicious inmate deaths. She has said the unexplained deaths are not a "crisis" and blamed the allegations of cover-up on "disgruntled employees."

At least seven members of the DOC inspector general's staff have lodged allegations that high-ranking officials at the agency have systematically attempted to cover-up their findings of corruption and avoided attempts to seek prosecution for criminal allegations.

An investigation by the Miami Herald into documents and testimony of current and former prison investigators, staff and inmates has found that a culture of brutality has been tolerated at many prisons for several years. At the Northwest Florida Reception Center, for example, the prison recorded nearly 4,500 use of force reports from 2003-2013, ruled six of the 22 inmate deaths in eight years a homicide, and reported four deaths in 2014 that are under investigation by the FDLE.

The officials with the power to stop the brutal behavior — wardens, assistant wardens and the inspector — dismissed many of the allegations, the Herald found, some taking action only after federal authorities got involved.

The House plan drew the criticism Monday from nonpartisan advocates for prison reform.

"The Senate approach takes what a lot of other states have done successfully — which is to put a lot more eyeballs on the problem,'' said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, a nonpartisan advocate for evidence-based prison reform based at Florida State University. "The House, at this juncture, doesn't seem to be taking that approach which we think is a mistake."

DeFoor said the Senate plan threatens the groups that benefit from the status quo — state bureaucrats, labor unions and the private prison industry which operates seven of Florida's prisons — but added: "What is really threatening is a system that spends over $2 billion of taxpayer money, creates more crime and kills people doing it.''

He said that Georgia's conservative governor, Legislature and attorney general joined forces four years ago to reform its prison system and the changes have resulted in a 7 percent drop in the prison population, fewer inmates cycling back after being released, and a cost savings to the state.

"If we don't change the structure in this system, we will be back a year from now having the same conversation,'' DeFoor said. "The problem is not entirely about not enough money. The structure is broken."

The Project on Accountable Justice recommends lawmakers require prison budgets be tied to strong performance measures and state officials be held accountable by an independent board.

"There is no $2 billion corporation in the world that doesn't have a board of directors,'' DeFoor said. "With something that big, you have to have more eyeballs on the ball."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @maryellenklas.