When state inspectors and a Panhandle sheriff testify under oath that they were forced to ignore evidence of crimes and corruption in the state prison system, Florida has a problem. Yet the dismissive response by the Department of Corrections does not reflect the seriousness of the situation. These are disturbing, credible charges that the Florida Legislature should explore, and lawmakers should appoint a joint committee to investigate these allegations in a public setting.
Three prison inspectors and one former inspector captivated a legislative hearing Tuesday by telling lawmakers about being coerced into keeping quiet about inmate abuse, medical neglect, gang violence and other acts of mistreatment in Florida's prison system. Veteran law enforcement officers who worked to root out crime, corruption and political interference in the prisons said they were told to back off by their superiors, despite a tide of egregious behavior that was all but sanctioned by higher-ups.
John Ulm, an officer who works in the inspector general's office, said he was briefly ordered to clean out his office days after the Miami Herald reported that he and other investigators had uncovered possible crimes and a coverup in the death of a inmate who had been repeatedly gassed by guards. Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, a former prison inspector, said he was twice told not to pursue criminal charges that could implicate prison wardens and other staff. One supervisor in the inspector's office said he was told to close a case against a staffer who had a high-ranking friend in the state capital.
"We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves," Ulm said, pleading for outside intervention. "We need some oversight. The organized crime, the murders, the assaults, the victimization that goes on there every day is horrendous."
The frankness and severity of these charges is startling, and the fear of retribution for talking was obvious. Coming from veteran officers who have spent years inside the system, the charges also carry credibility.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, has performed a valuable public service by using his panel's oversight authority to bring this sordid story to light. His surprise inspections of state prison facilities have finally put a spotlight on the practices of the Department of Corrections. While Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has promised some reforms, she is too defensive now and made a mistake initially by imposing a gag order that could have had the inspectors fired for speaking about what they saw.
There is no sense wasting more time and pretending that a crisis doesn't exist. Inmates are not the most sympathetic characters, but the government has an obligation to follow up on charges of abuse and corruption.
A joint legislative committee could investigate these claims and air public testimony without having the department cast a shadow over the process and intimidate witnesses. It would not interfere with Jones' pursuit of reforms, and it would complement that effort by helping to restore public faith and political confidence in the department along the way. This is a safety issue for inmates and guards alike, and a question of accountability for those who run the prison system.
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The Scott administration should be candid about the abuses. It faces a choice: Cooperate with an investigation by the Legislature, or have control of the prison system taken away from the governor by state lawmakers and handed to an independent commission.