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New state prison boss pushing big changes

Gov. Rick Scott paid a lot for Edwin Buss' expertise, and Floridians are about to find out whether Buss is worth the investment.

The soft-spoken Buss has one of the most challenging jobs in the state as secretary of the Department of Corrections. It has long been an insular place, suspicious of outsiders and wary of the big bosses at agency headquarters in Tallahassee, a place known to prison workers as "central office."

The huge agency has a $3 billion budget, 146 prisons and more than 100,000 inmates. It endured a morale-crushing scandal several years ago that sent ex-prison boss James Crosby to prison, and the department has struggled to cope for years with a high rate of recidivism among inmates — a chronic problem Buss is working to address.

Buss was running the prison system in Indiana when Scott's people came calling soon after he was elected in November. Buss wanted to come to Florida, and now we know what we didn't know then: Buss was in a very strong bargaining position.

Newly unearthed e-mails from Scott's transition office dating to December show that Michigan's new governor, Rick Snyder, was romancing Buss at the same time Scott was — and offering him a lot more money.

Tim D'Elia, one of the recruiting agency heads for the Scott administration, learned that Michigan was offering Buss $165,000 a year. Florida countered with $145,000, but D'Elia noted in an e-mail that taxes in Florida are lower. To seal the deal, he suggested Scott's people also emphasize "lifestyle — Michigan is cold and gray for five months a year."

Chris Kise, a Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist who was a transition adviser, urged a note of caution. "Remember also, whatever you pay him, everyone else will want," Kise told transition director Enu Mainigi. The extra pool of money to boost selected salaries came from the Governor's Office — since Scott refused to accept a salary as governor.

When Buss took the job, Mainigi directed a subordinate to draft the news release announcing Buss: "Emphasize out of state reformer — bringing in a dose of newness that department really needs."

That newness hasn't even begun to wear off.

Buss soon hired a health care policy adviser, Elizabeth "Betty" Gondles, who also worked for him in Indiana, for a 10-month contract at $180,000. Gondles is overseeing the selection of a private vendor to handle all of the prison system's health care.

He banned smoking in prisons, effective this coming September. The other day Buss issued an edict banning pornography in all prisons, after he saw a Playboy centerfold tacked to a wall in a South Florida prison.

He wants correctional officers to work 12-hour shifts, not eight-hour ones, and when the guards union balked, the two sides agreed to a compromise: a pilot program at Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello.

But the most sweeping change of all on Buss' watch wasn't his idea — it was the Legislature's. By January, 30 prisons and work release centers in South Florida will all be outsourced to a private company.

The legislatively mandated privatization venture has been highly disruptive to staffers, who work and live in the affected area south of Lake Okeechobee. Many will lose their jobs or be forced to move to keep their prison paychecks, but Buss sees an opening to force the vendor to create re-entry programs to keep inmates from re-offending. All in all, Buss says, he likes the people who work for the prison system. "They're ready for change," Buss said. "They're ready to move on from the Crosby years."

New state prison boss pushing big changes 07/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 7:02pm]
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