Bipartisan Group Of Florida Lawmakers Mulling Over Prison Reform Initiatives

Jan 9, 2015

Credit MGN Online

During their first week back, Florida lawmakers discussed some ways to reform the state’s prison system—currently plagued by allegations of inmate abuse by prison guards and cover ups.

Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. And, during a recent hearing, he briefed lawmakers on an overview of what’s been going on with the troubled prison system.

“There’s been investigative reports with numerous news outlets with documented suspicious inmate deaths,” said Evers. “Former Secretary [Mike] Crews reopened these investigations, and terminated some employees, and launched its inmate mortality website. It ordered an audit of use-of-force reports, and instituted a variety of the changes with DOC and the treatment of the inmates with mental health issues.”

Since that time, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Corrections have entered into a written agreement—called the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU—for FDLE to investigate all unnatural inmate deaths.

But, during the recent hearing, newly named FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen told lawmakers under a later verbal agreement, FDLE investigates all inmate deaths—and indicated he’d like that to change.

But,  Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) disagreed.

“If I were King for a day, I would like to see the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] to reflect that every single death that occurs in a DOC facility be reported to FDLE until such time as I am confident in the system,” said Bradley. “And, I'm lacking confidence right now in the system.”

Lawmakers also got some input on where they could improve the system. That included statements from George Mallinckrodt, who used to work in the mental health unit of a South Florida correctional facility where he says he witnessed inmate abuse and tried to speak up, but was later fired.

Some lawmakers suggested rotating prison guards within certain regions, but he says that won’t help change the overall culture.

“I think it would weaken the culture. It would weaken the ties and the loyalties between these abusive guards,” said Mallinckrodt. “However, an abusive guard in Tallahassee is transferred down to Dade CI. You know, I think once you’re abusive, you’re abusive. I don’t think a leopard can change its spots.”

Allison DeFoor recommended a change in DOC’s hiring policy, which could include changing the minimum educational requirement from a high school degree to changing the DOC Secretary’s term. That’s part of a report released months ago by the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice, which DeFoor chairs. His committee testimony included talking about newly named DOC Secretary Julie Jones who just started her post.

“Secretary [Julie] Jones is someone in whom I have a great deal of personal confidence,” said DeFoor. “However, she is the seventh Secretary of this agency—not counting interims—within eight years. We propose a five-year term, but we would point out a two-year term would be a dramatic improvement at this point.”

In addition to changing the term of the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary to a 5-year term, the report also talks about the creation of an independent oversight board—similar to a bill that Sen. Bradley filed weeks ago.

Bradley’s proposal includes a provision that the Secretary position be subject to approval by the Cabinet, similar to other agency head positions. And, the independent nine-member commission—which can do unannounced inspections of DOC—must be appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate.

“Clearly there’s individuals who work within the department that are not fearful that they will lose their job if they behave badly, and we want the employees to understand that there is somebody ready and able to come into a facility and find out what happened,” said Bradley, speaking to WFSU.

But, Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) says she’s not too sure about what the oversight board will do.

“I’m not sure that that is extremely helpful,” said Gibson, during a recent Senate Democratic Caucus meeting. “The system is a very big system. And, if we’re going to have any type of commission, it certainly can’t be one commission. To me, it would have to be regionalized somehow.”

Gibson also expressed concerns over FDLE’s request for money to hire more people to help with inmate death investigations. She says instead the Legislature should first put more money into making sure DOC is properly staffed…

“…or however the situation needs to occur to help break the cycle of culture that exists that we can’t really see, but we know obviously that it exists. And, so, I just believe our approach should be about before deaths happen and not after they occur,” Gibson continued.

Meanwhile, over in the House, Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville), the former chair of the Justice Budget panel, says the prison agency has—for years—suffered under a huge deficit. So, he says lawmakers need to make sure Corrections has adequate funds to help reform the system.

“If as their budget is worked out, they’re not able to resolve those problems, then more action by the Legislature may need to be taken,”  said McBurney, speaking to WFSU.

In this year’s budget request, the Florida Department of Corrections asked for about $37 million to meet its staffing needs. Meanwhile, the FDLE is asking for $8.3 million to hire 66 new people to assist in an anticipated increase in use-of-force and inmate death investigations.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.