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  1. Florida Politics

Florida prisons audit: Improvements made; more needed

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida prison system is making "impressive" improvements but still needs more corrections officers, staff training and video cameras, according to a use-of-force audit of the Department of Corrections released Thursday.

The audit of the department, which saw a near doubling of use-of-force incidents over a recent five-year span, was conducted by the Association of State Corrections Officers at the request of the agency.

The report was commissioned in response to a series of news stories about questionable inmate deaths in the state prison system, as well as the documented spike in the use of force by prison guards, sometimes with deadly consequences. Last year, a record number of inmates died in state custody.

Legislators this year raised questions about how well the agency was implementing its use-of-force policies and questioned whether the agency was capable of "policing itself" in the wake of reports about coverups of inmate abuse and the silencing of whistle-blowers within the agency's Office of Inspector General.

The audit found that DOC policies were not necessarily problematic — they generally conform to accepted practices.

It also didn't take issue with the culture of the prison system. It stated that the current leadership of the Department of Corrections, the third-largest system in the nation, has communicated a policy of "zero tolerance" toward abuse of prisoners, as evidenced by a recent series of arrests and dismissals of DOC staffers.

Interviews with prison officials, as well observations during on-site visits, led the review team to conclude that "every employee interviewed knew about the mandate from the Central Office to only utilize the least amount of force to gain control of a situation only when other nonphysical intervention methods have failed."

It noted that a "small number" of employees complained that this approach amounted to "coddling inmates," and the reviewers urged that these employees be "carefully monitored" by prison officials "to ensure that their negativity doesn't grow into an informal subculture that becomes pervasive among other employees at the institution."

Julie Jones, who became secretary of the Department of Corrections a little less than a year ago, said she welcomed the recommendations.

"The information provided in this review reflects the department's ongoing efforts to increase accountability and safety within our institutions and our goal of becoming a national leader in correctional policy," she said in a statement. "I look forward to implementing the recommendations provided in this review and further improving and strengthening the operations of this department."

The report suggested there was room for improvement in several areas. It noted that inmates involved in use-of-force incidents sometimes chose not to give a statement, and raised the question of whether this could be because they felt doing so would endanger them all over again.

Although the agency has spent money adding video cameras and replacing analog cameras with digital cameras, the report suggested this was not enough. It noted that 75 percent of the incidents in which officers use force against inmates were unplanned events and many of those events occur "in locations where there is no video or audio coverage."

It said supplementing the video with audio — recently introduced at Dade Correctional but lacking elsewhere — would give a truer picture of what happened and why to anyone reviewing the footage.

The report noted that staffing shortages continue to cause trouble for the agency. Since the start of the year, the DOC has made many new hires, resulting in a net increase of 800 corrections officers, said McKinley Lewis, a DOC spokesman.

But the numbers are still not enough to keep drugs, cellphones, cigarettes and weapons out of the hands of inmates, the report said.

The report noted that while prisoners are not allowed cigarettes, employees can bring one pack into the workplace. It noted that each cigarette in that pack could potentially be sold for $10. The report said that contraband cellphones are particularly prevalent at Dade Correctional Institution and that introducing contraband there is as easy as tossing phones or drugs over the perimeter fence at a prescribed time.

Members of the audit team visited Columbia, Dade, Martin, Santa Rosa, Suwannee and Union correctional institutions between May and August. The prisons were chosen because they are scattered throughout the state and have a high number of use-of-force incidents.

Other recommendations include:

• The DOC should consider reverting to eight-hour shifts for corrections officers instead of the current 12-hour workday.

• Health care providers should document all medical and mental health assessments and staff should be better trained with how to deal with inmates with medical diagnoses.

• Incident reports on each use-of-force event should be required to include informative details, and vague "boilerplate" language should be prohibited.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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