TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill to create an independent commission to investigate wrongdoing in Florida's troubled prison system and increase sanctions against prison staffers accused of crimes.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously for SB 2070, a wide-ranging attempt to reform the Florida Department of Corrections, which has been hit hard by reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that its chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored abuse of inmates.
The bill would create a nine-member Criminal Justice Commission with the power to conduct surprise inspections at both state-run and privately run prisons, monitor health care and independently investigate allegations of abuse.
"Real reform will only be achieved if we fundamentally change the accountability system when it comes to the criminal justice system,'' said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, whose proposal to create the oversight commission was incorporated into SB 2070, a broader prison reform bill on Monday. He compared the commission to the state Board of Education.
"What's good for education … should also be good for our criminal justice system and our prison system,'' he said. "The people of Florida expect nothing less."
Bradley is among a growing number of legislators who have concluded that the prison system can no longer police itself. For decades, the agency has relied on internal inspectors to conduct investigations into inmate grievances, inmate abuse, suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of corruption and excessive use of force.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he spoke to prison guards who disputed assertions by DOC Secretary Julie Jones that chemical agents used to control unruly inmates were carefully monitored.
"They said their (gas) canisters have never been checked and they feel that perhaps upper management or middle management is not giving an accurate view of what is going on within prisons,'' he said. One officer told him that guards have been told by their supervisors not to be truthful on the agency survey that Jones is implementing to determine employees concerns.
He said female corrections officers told him they feel especially vulnerable. "They are not only being harassed sexually by prisoners but by male guards,'' he said. "At least three of them told me they feel threatened in a veiled manner such as 'you saw what would happen to so and so and that would be terrible if it happened to you. Keep your mouth shut.' "
Clemens said he would like to see the proposal strengthened by giving legislators the ability to appoint some commission members. The current proposal gives the governor exclusive authority to appoint members but makes those appointments subject to Senate confirmation.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, tried and failed to remove the oversight board from the legislation.
"It's not necessary,'' she said before the meeting. "Accountability cannot be built from the outside it has to come from the inside."
She said she doubted that an outside commission could change a culture in which many say inmate grievances are arbitrarily dismissed and wrongdoing is covered up. She echoed comments of Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican and former Senate president, who said last week he supports the oversight board but wants it to be temporary.
"It should have a sunset date,'' she said.
Silent on the issue has been the Teamsters, the union that represents some corrections officers. Bradley asked a Teamsters representative at an earlier hearing on Monday if the group supported the bill and was told the union remains neutral.
If implemented, provisions of SB 2070 will upset the status quo for corrections officers and their bosses who have had reprimands for abusive behavior. The goal of the commission would be to ensure "safe functioning of our prison system" and would develop and implement standards and impose an accountability system. Commissioners would review all budgets and make budget recommendations and accept input from citizens.
The oversight board would begin as soon as Oct. 15, 2015, and have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.
The board would have the authority to do unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private contractors. It would do regular "security audits" focusing on institutions with the most violent inmates. And it would have the power to determine how effective video cameras are, and whether there are blind spots intended to shield areas from view.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.