Rewritten House bill would create greater prison oversight

But changes in a House proposal still fall short of the Senate's plan for system reforms.
Published April 14 2015
Updated April 14 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The chief inspector general of the prison system and most of his top staff would be replaced, prison guards would wear body cameras, a hotline would log abuse claims and five regional oversight boards would conduct unannounced prison inspections under a massive rewrite of the House prison reform bill.

The proposal will be offered today by House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Carlos Trujillo as an amendment to HB 7131, in an attempt to bridge the gap between a comprehensive Senate bill and the weaker House version. Both bills are a response to allegations of abuse and corruption in Florida's prison system.

"This bill is taking us 80 percent of the way there, but it is a work in progress," Trujillo told the Times/Herald of his proposal, filed late Monday. "There are other things that can't be addressed in one bill, but it's a start."

Trujillo said he was motivated to revise the House proposal after testimony from inmates' families and prison reform advocates who pleaded with the House to strengthen its legislation. It will be voted on by the House Judiciary Committee today.

The proposal envisions a wholesale review of all hiring practices, employee retention policies and employee training, Trujillo said. It requires that the state create five regional oversight boards, staffed by state employees whose terms would last no more than four years, with the goal of increasing oversight and accountability at the troubled agency.

"I don't think a single person's job is safe under our new approach," Trujillo said. "Everyone has to be held accountable."

Trujillo, a lawyer and former prosecutor, said he would start by removing the DOC's chief inspector general, Jeffery Beas­ley, who has been accused of sabotaging investigations and repeatedly ignoring claims of inmate abuse.

"The current leader is not the ideal person for the job and, it appears, the IG's office is the dumping ground for a lot of very bad actors," Trujillo said. "Everybody who has a buddy ends up there — and you can tell by the reports." For months, the Miami Herald has documented reports of suspicious inmate deaths, claims by whistle-blowers, and allegations of coverups at the agency.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones has steadfastly defended Beasley, saying the allegations come from a handful of "disgruntled employees."

Trujillo said he met with Jones for an hour Monday and is "confident she is being absolutely honest with me,'' he said. "We disagree on some things — the inspector general is one of them."

Trujillo said he believes there are some personality profiles that are not suited to be corrections officers and the agency has to do a better job of weeding those people out.

"Some of these bad actors have mental health profiles that can indicate they are going to be bad actors — domestic violence histories and other things," he said. "We have to do a lot of work preventively in the hiring process to make sure these predators, these sociopaths, are not selected."

Among his proposals:

• Wardens and department heads would be required to establish performance standards and the entire chain of command would be held responsible for them. The secretary would be given stronger tools to remove wardens and others who do not follow through.

• An anonymous hotline would be established for families and friends of inmates to report suspected abuse.

• Use-of-force reports would be removed from the prisons and consolidated in the central office, to create another layer of oversight.

• The inmate grievance process would be streamlined and ultimately shifted to an electronic process that would withstand attempts by prison staff to tamper with complaints.

• Inmate grievances also would be removed from the local prisons and handled by the regional review boards with more transparency.

• Body cameras would be worn by corrections officers working in designated mental health centers and, eventually as the budget allows, would be worn by all corrections officers.

• All surveillance footage from prison cameras would be archived off-site, to avoid incidents in which footage involving suspicious inmate deaths or use-of-force incidents disappears.

Although the proposals would move the House much closer to the Senate's bill, the two chambers would still have to work out differences.

Inmate health care also would come under increased scrutiny under the plan, Trujillo said, with vendors required to follow strict criteria for health outcomes and quality as part of their contracts.

He acknowledged that the Legislature's attempt to direct vendor contracts through its budget process has created some of the problems that have led to low-quality care.

"That's one thing we have to accept responsibility for," he said. "A lot of these contracts have to be rebid. The standard shouldn't be subpar. The standard should be excellence."

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