Florida's prison system needs a massive overhaul to stem the tide of corruption, mismanagement and inmate abuse that has plagued the agency not just of late, but for decades, a report issued Thursday says.
The state's inability and unwillingness to address the system's widespread failings is dangerous to the public, costly to taxpayers and, in many cases, fatal to inmates, who are often treated inhumanely, the report says.
The Project on Accountable Justice, a think tank based at Florida State University, contends that the state could save taxpayers billions by cleaning up the Florida Department of Corrections.
The report proposes that Florida:
• Follow the lead of Texas and Georgia and create a public safety oversight commission that would set policy and standards for prisons. The commission would have the authority to inspect all corrections facilities, adult and juvenile; obtain all records related to a facility's operation or condition; conduct confidential interviews with prison staff and inmates and develop recommendations for improving the system.
"You can't run a corporation this size without a board of directors, so how can you run a $2.3 billion enterprise without accountability?'' said Allison DeFoor, a former judge and Monroe County sheriff who headed the group issuing the recommendations.
• Raise the minimum standard for hiring corrections officers. The current educational standard is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Also, set up incentives to encourage corrections officers to pursue post-secondary education and advanced training. And set up a voluntary early buyout program to encourage those employees who want to leave to do so.
• Decouple the terms of Department of Corrections Secretaries from those of the governors who currently appoint them. One option would be to have the corrections commission either appoint the secretary or be "integrally involved in the vetting, hiring and performance process." Another would have the appointment of a secretary be subject to approval by the state Senate, as with the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
• In addition to punishing inmates, make a concerted effort to rehabilitate them.
"As taxpayers and citizens that bear direct financial and societal costs of incarceration and recidivism, Floridians should expect more,'' the report says.
With 20,000 employees and more than 100,000 inmates, Florida's prison system is the third-largest in the country.
While other states have initiated prison reform in recent years, Florida continues on a trajectory of expensive, outmoded and abusive practices in its prisons, DeFoor said. Gov. Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers — on both sides of the political aisle — need to take a hard look at what is wrong with the state's prisons, the former sheriff added.
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The body that produced the report includes several influential figures, both Democratic and Republican, but considers itself an independent, bipartisan group that believes in reform.
The report was prompted in part by a series of articles in the Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, the Palm Beach Post and the News Service of Florida exposing corruption and inmate abuse in the prisons.
DeFoor said the group was alarmed by the stories, calling the treatment of some inmates "horrible, medieval and un-American.''