Editorial: Working toward common goal on prison reform

Florida Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, visited 23 corrections facilities and interviewed more than 120 inmates.
Florida Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, visited 23 corrections facilities and interviewed more than 120 inmates.
Published March 4 2016
Updated March 4 2016

South Florida lawmaker David Richardson has embarked on a bold mission to bring about safety reforms in Florida's troubled prison system. Richardson has spent months visiting prisons throughout the state and brought fresh eyes to problems such as gang fights, officer abuse and unsafe conditions for youthful offenders. His work has been well received by Department of Corrections officials and already has produced concrete results.

Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, has utilized a state law that allows legislators unfettered, unannounced access to Florida's prisons. In six months, he visited 23 corrections facilities and interviewed more than 120 inmates. The retired forensic auditor uncovered officer-on-inmate violence, gangs that prey on new arrivals and poorly designed facilities with blind spots that can be exploited by violent troublemakers. At Sumter Correctional Institution, for example, he learned that officers routinely stage fights in areas that are away from surveillance cameras. A Miami Herald article in September about the broomstick hazing of a 19-year-old inmate at Lancaster Correctional Institution near Gainesville prompted Richardson to focus on offenders between the ages of 14 and 24, many of whom were housed at adult prisons in areas designated for youths but rife with violence.

Backed by Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, Richardson had free rein to interview inmates. He used what he learned in those interviews to make recommendations to Jones. He has, for example, called for officers to wear body cameras to reduce staff violence against inmates. In February, Jones agreed to close the youthful offender wing at Lancaster and transfer young inmates to more appropriate facilities. She also said she remains open to the House lawmaker's suggestions even if she ultimately disagrees. This type of cooperation from Jones and her staff puts the best interests of the prison system above territorial concerns. Separately, Jones is lobbying legislators for 734 new staff positions to increase safety. Lawmakers should hear her out.

The systemic dysfunction in Florida's prisons is well documented. Corrections officials need help from all corners to overhaul a system rife with inmate abuse, unexplained inmate deaths and inadequate supervision of prisoners. Richardson's investigative work has enabled the Corrections Department to see itself from a different perspective, and refreshingly, the agency has been receptive to the lawmaker's observations and suggestions.

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