Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, new to the prison system but with a life of service in state government, is refreshingly candid about the department's challenges and has promised to shake up a prison culture that is cloistered and often unaccountable. Jones' approach, coupled with surprise visits by lawmakers to some of the state's most notorious prisons, could signal a new era of transparent and honest examination that might finally start to repair Florida's prison system.
The prison system came under intense scrutiny last year after the Miami Herald published a series of articles on inmate abuse, unexplained inmate deaths and other officer-involved scandals. Among the most outrageous incidents was the 2012 death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate who died at Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead after officers allegedly locked him in a scalding shower for nearly two hours and chunks of his skin fell off. Rainey had defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. Following the Herald's investigation, then-Corrections chief Mike Crews implemented a series of reforms, including a zero-tolerance policy for officer misconduct, independent reviews of all inmate deaths, and increased training and education standards for corrections employees. Separately, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the state's prison system. Crews resigned in November, leaving the bulk of the reform work unfinished.
Just about a month into her new job, Jones appears to have a firm grasp on the issues that plague the state's troubled prisons system. She told a group of state senators last week that private medical providers failed to meet standards for inmate care and that their contracts had no provision for holding them accountable. Jones also has asked for $100 million more in the next prison budget to rebuild aging facilities, increase staff and reduce officers' shifts from 12 to eight hours. Unfortunately, Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget offers only half that amount and no money to investigate the record number of inmate deaths. Legislators will have to do better than that.
Some lawmakers appear to be giving Florida's prisons much-needed attention, making unannounced visits last week to Suwannee and Jefferson correctional centers. The visits prompted one regional prison director to tell his wardens to be prepared for inspections at all times. And an expansive corrections bill, SB 7020, that offers strong measures to improve prison safety has its first committee review on Monday. The bill includes increasing officer training, strengthening means for reporting abuse and requiring periodic safety audits.
The Project on Accountable Justice, a prison reform group at Florida State University, also has put forth some good ideas about ways to overhaul the state's prison system. Although Jones does not agree with all of the suggestions, lawmakers should give their proposal and her plans a full and fair hearing.
An outsider to the corrections system, Jones has been remarkably candid in her new role. But she will need more than sound proposals to change such a closed culture. The governor and the Legislature should give her the help she needs, and they should revisit the decision to privatize medical care. Prisoners may not garner much public sympathy, but the state that incarcerates them has a duty to treat them fairly and humanely.