Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 [email protected] 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. College basketball scandal dips into Tampa Bay

    Preps

    Tuesday's national college basketball scandal has recruiting ties to Tampa Bay.

    In this March 15, 2012, file photo, San Diego State assistant coach Tony Bland, left, talks during NCAA college basketball practice in Columbus, Ohio. Bland was identified in court papers, and is among 10 people facing federal charges in Manhattan federal court, Tuesday in a wide probe of fraud and corruption in the NCAA, authorities said. [AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File]
  2. Datz to open in St. Petersburg, join the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art

    Food & Dining

    Now Datz news.

    Get it? Tuesday, Datz, the longtime line-out-the-door, oft-Instagrammed and -Yelped Tampa stalwart known for shock-and-awe sandwiches and oh-so-much bacon, announced it is coming to St. Petersburg.

    Lunch guest eat at Datz Deli at 2616 South MacDill Ave. in Tampa. Times files.
  3. Republican leader McConnell pulls the plug on latest Obamacare repeal effort

    WASHINGTON --- Sen. Mitch McConnell on Tuesday officially pulled the plug on the latest plan to repeal the health care law, telling senators they will not vote on the measure and effectively admitting defeat in the last-gasp drive to fulfill a core promise of President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, after the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary. DeVos was approved by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie in a historic vote. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) DCSA119
  4. Lightning's Brayden Point could be perfect fit alongside Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov

    Lightning Strikes

    SUNRISE — Brayden Point ended last season as the Lightning's No. 1 center, thrust into the role as a rookie due to injuries.

    Lightning center Brayden Point (21) advances the puck through the neutral zone during Friday's preseason game against the Nashville Predators. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
  5. For starters: Rays at Yankees, with Blake Snell starting, Wilson Ramos cashing in

    Blogs

    The Rays open their final road series of the season tonight at Yankee Stadium, which is also where they played their first of the season.

    LHP Blake Snell will be on the mound for the Rays, looking to continue his successful late-season run, in which he is 4-0, 2,57 over his last eight starts.

    Tonight marks Wilson Ramos' 55th start of the season.