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Ed Buss wastes little time changing Florida's Department of Corrections

BRISTOL — Ed Buss doesn't look like a revolutionary.

The low-key Midwesterner has taken the state Department of Corrections by storm as he sets about reforming and revitalizing the nation's third-largest prison system, a place long hostile to change and where outsiders are viewed with suspicion.

Gov. Rick Scott promised to shake things up, and nobody on his new team is pushing more change more quickly than Buss, a 45-year-old Army veteran who most recently ran Indiana's prisons.

In hyper-partisan Tallahassee, Buss is receiving the highest compliment of all: high praise even from some Democrats who despise most of Scott's policies. In just six weeks, Buss has:

• Called for a major new financial commitment to helping prison inmates re-enter society so they can start new lives and become less likely to return to prison.

• Fired more than a dozen highly paid administrators and proposed a 5 percent pay cut for all wardens and the privatization of all prison health care programs.

• Banned smoking by an estimated 60,000 inmates after voicing shock that prisons were still not smoke-free in 2011.

• Urged the Legislature to abolish mandatory minimum prison sentences in some cases, saying that judges should be given more discretion and that some people may be in prison who don't belong there.

• Proposed that corrections officers switch from eight-hour days to 12-hour shifts to cut down on commuting costs and give more officers more weekends off.

• Suggested closing three prisons to cut costs and improve efficiency, including shutting the only faith-based prison for women in Tampa.

For Buss, it has not been entirely a smooth start.

The Senate quickly rejected a plan to pay for new inmate re-entry programs by laying off more than 600 correctional officers, and a vast network of volunteers and ex-inmates have for now blocked plans to close Hills­borough Correctional Institution, a women's faith-based prison with a low recidivism rate and a high number of success stories.

But lawmakers and prison reform advocates have been waiting for years for someone like Buss to arrive.

"His reputation from Indiana is stellar and innovative, and I think he's open to new ideas," said Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs.

"It's a whole new way of thinking and operating," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has shared with Buss his own past of drug addiction and recovery. "We've evolved to the point where we want to expand alternatives to incarceration."

When the weekend arrives, Buss doesn't stop working. He makes site visits to prisons, many of them in far-flung rural areas.

On a recent visit to Liberty Correctional Institution in rural Bristol, between Tallahassee and Panama City, Buss joked amiably with employees and listened to their concerns. He shook hands with a 45-year-old inmate, Leon Highsmith, and asked, "How you doing? How's it going?"

Upon meeting the tall, strapping deputy warden Willie Brown, Buss extended his hand and said: "You're a big guy. I'm glad I'm on your team."

He described his surprise at seeing a panther crossing highway sign while driving to a prison in Hendry County and sought to reassure employees who are now in their fourth straight year of going without a pay increase.

"It's a tough time to be a state employee," Buss told the staff at Liberty. "There are days we need leadership, even if it's just somebody to tell them, 'It's okay, we'll get through this.' "

He wants inmates to grow more of their own food. He wants to eliminate boot camps for youthful offenders, which he said don't teach them literacy, self-esteem and other skills they can use outside prison.

Buss' determination to close three prisons has had an unsettling effect on the work force. But his own past as a rank-and-file officer at the Indiana State Prison in the late 1980s helps his credibility.

"So far, I like what I see," said James Baiardi, a leader in the correctional officers union. "We've had several meetings with him, and being brought to the table is half the battle."

Buss wants to duplicate policies that he says worked in Indiana, such as having correctional officers work three 12-hour shifts one week and four 12-hour shifts the next. That change would cut commute times and gasoline costs and give younger officers weekends off.

In the seniority-centered prison system, some officers work for years without having free weekends, which Buss says is bad for morale.

"We're going to change that," he says matter-of-factly.

Not so fast, says the Police Benevolent Association, the politically influential union that represents more than 21,000 correctional officers. Union leaders say working conditions have to be negotiated across the bargaining table and prefer that the 12-hour workday be started slowly at one prison, not statewide.

With many officers also single-parent heads of families, the implications for child care costs have to be considered, too, the union says.

"Every weekend somebody gets off, you got a guy losing weekends off that he's had for years," said Matt Puckett, the union's executive director. "We want to go slow."

Buss, his wife Dawn and three sons have long vacationed in Florida, and when Scott called with a job offer, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I think I chose Florida because of Gov. Rick Scott. I think he's going to do tremendous things," Buss said. "I think we're ready. We're ready for change."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Ed Buss wastes little time changing Florida's Department of Corrections 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 10:42pm]
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