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  1. Opinion

Is 2020 the year for Florida prison reform? | Paula Dockery

Department of Corrections officials are ringing the alarm bells about inadequate staffing and facilities. The issues have festered for years.
Florida State Prison in Raiford. (Times files)
Florida State Prison in Raiford. (Times files)
Published Jan. 3

It’s getting so bad in Florida’s prisons that legislators are not only receiving dire warnings from Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch. They also have heard from a cadre of state prison wardens — a much rarer occurrence in the state capitol.

The wardens are urging state senators to address desperate conditions with adequate funding. Those conditions include ignored routine maintenance, low salaries, routine 12-hour overtime shifts, poor working conditions and gang violence.

These problems and conditions have caused an alarming rate of turnover among correctional officers and prison staff, with retention being just as big a headache as recruiting.

Alarm bells are sounding…again.

Inch was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis nearly a year ago and assigned the job of fixing Florida’s nearly broken prison system. Inch served a brief stint as head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and appears to be a true reformer.

Paula Dockery [Paula Dockery]

An excellent report by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald capital bureau’s Mary Ellen Klas summarized Inch’s warnings:

“Years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to an understaffed, inexperienced crew of corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs.

“They operate out of aging facilities with an increasingly hostile inmate population — as many as 70 percent of whom enter with a substance abuse problem — and a gang hierarchy that is powerful and growing.”

Inch emphasizes that “the status quo is not sustainable. … We are now at the point that we must pay for the savings garnered in previous years.”

Is this the year for real change? It’s hard to get our hopes up again, but that decision lies primarily with DeSantis, who appointed Inch and who is keenly aware of the problems. Does he have the power and desire to fix them? It takes money, leadership and zero tolerance for corruption.

How did we get here?

While it would be unfair to blame former Gov. Rick Scott for creating the problem entirely — the lack of funding and political will predates his election in 2010 — he certainly exacerbated the crisis with his ludicrous campaign promise to cut a billion dollars from the Department of Corrections budget. So did his 2012 change from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts, resulting in the cutting of 3,700 prison jobs.

Did I mention he went through four Corrections secretaries in eight years as governor?

Scott largely ignored the public outcry after some highly publicized inmate deaths. Randall Jordan-Aparo was denied medical attention and was forced into an isolation cell, where he was gassed to death. Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, was locked in a shower and scalded with hot water until his death.

To be sure, there have been heroes during these decades of decay. Some have paid a price for speaking out.

Reporters such as Klas, Julie Brown from the Miami Herald and Pat Beall from the Palm Beach Post have done incredible investigative reporting to bring these stories to light.

George C. Mallinckrodt wrote a book, “Getting Away With Murder,” chronicling the true story of the death of Darren Rainey. He was a case manager in the Transitional Care Unit where Darren Rainey was housed. He had the courage to expose what he saw regarding inmate abuse.

Another doctor who worked inside Florida’s prisons, Victor Arana, outlined his firsthand accounts in a book, “Irregularities In Correctional Institutions.”

Judge Steve Liefman served as special adviser on criminal justice and mental health for the Florida Supreme Court and developed a comprehensive plan to keep the mentally ill out of prisons. With some upfront costs for beds, the plan would have eventually saved the state millions while also addressing the needs of the mentally ill. The Legislature ridiculously balked at the cost.

Current legislators such as Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Rob Bradley of Fleming Island have been consistent voices in addressing the monetary and policy needs. Kudos.

And former state senators stood up to the powerful private prison lobby that sought to benefit from the chaos in the Department of Corrections. In 2012, Scott was pushing a prison privatization effort. Nine Republican senators joined all 12 Democratic senators in defeating it on a 19-21 vote. Despite tremendous pressure and arm-twisting, they held firm, handing Scott and the Senate president an embarrassing defeat. Those Republican senators were Charles Dean, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Paula Dockery, Greg Evers, Mike Fasano, Dennis Jones, Jack Latvala, Stephen Oelrich and Ronda Storms.

Four inspectors in the Inspector General’s Office blew the whistle on some within the Department of Corrections. Aubrey Land, David Clark, John Ulm and Doug Glisson did their jobs and spoke up even when they felt pressure not to. Their good deeds did not go unpunished.

For all those who have spoken up and tried to be part of the solution, don’t we owe it to them to act now?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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