Bringing stability and consistency to the troubled Florida Department of Corrections is at the forefront of several lawmakers’ and prison reform stakeholders’ minds as the 2015 legislative session draws near. And, the discussion may start at the top.
That’s especially after Governor Rick Scott still has to name a permanent head to lead the troubled agency—after Scott’s third Florida Department of Corrections’ Secretary recently resigned.
Weeks ago, with rumors circulating that some agency heads may be looking to depart the Scott administration, Scott addressed the speculation.
“You know, whenever there’s a change of four years, you finish that, some people decide to move on and some people decide to stay. But, as we make announcements we’ll make those,” said Scott, speaking to reporters after his re-election.
Now, weeks later, Scott announced the first person to move on since his re-election Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews. Crews is calling it a retirement, and plans to take another position in the criminal justice field.
As the third Prison chief named in the incumbent’s first term, he did last the longest with close to two years on the job.
His first predecessor, Ed Buss, was forced to resign in just months over a controversial prison privatization effort, and Ken Tucker—who left under much better circumstances—left after about a year.
On the day of his appointment by Scott, Crews said he hoped to bring stability and consistency to the agency.
“If there is a group of people who deserve some consistency and some stability, it is the Florida Department of Corrections, the hard working and dedicated that do their job every day. They do it the right way for the right reasons,” said Crews.
Under his leadership, the department worked to whittle down its deficit, and Crews took charge of an effort to privatize the prison health care services—which led to several legal battles.
But, perhaps in the most recent months, things grew more intense as his agency came under scrutiny after a series of media reports detailed inmate abuse allegations and the agency’s handling of the investigations.
Particularly after it came to light that an investigation into the death of a mentally ill inmate who died a gruesome death in scalding hot shower is still ongoing, after two years.
Crews started touring the state’s correctional facilities, fired prison guards as well as some top officials, and was in the process of implementing a series of reforms. Those included creating a mental health care ombudsman, having the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate unnatural death, and creating an inmate death website.
In an earlier interview, he said his overall goal for all these reforms is be open and transparent and make sure the safety of everyone is paramount.
“Part of that is doing the right thing, and the right thing is when we’ve got bad seeds, we’re not going to sweep it under the rug. Someone who does that—that pushes it aside or says ‘we’re not going to take any action on this’—they’re just as guilty as the person who did it in my book,” said Crews, in an interview last month. “And, as we’ve gone around the state for the last several months, what we’ve impressed upon our leadership team at all 49 institutions that I’ve been to is that yes, we expect and have high expectations how we’re going to conduct ourselves as an agency and as members of this agency.”
“I think that Secretary Crews is somebody who truly wanted to change the department. But, it’s like moving an air craft carrier. It takes a long time because it’s a huge bureaucracy, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. But, it takes time to change the culture,” said Barney Bishop, the CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance.
Bishop says he’s sad the department is losing a good man. Bishop worked with Crews and other state officials on a prison reform initiative that allows released inmates get an ID card to help them successfully re-enter society and reduce the recidivism rate, or the chance they’ll come back to prison. And, he hopes to build on those efforts again this year.
Bishop says he’s willing to work with the new Secretary on these initiatives. Still, while he believes most correctional officers are good people, he says the new head has to be strong enough to clean up the culture.
And, that’s something that may be looked at in 2015. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) chaired the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee under former House Speaker Will Weatherford.
“Well, it’s important to confront the reality that the Department of Corrections has had generational challenges dating back to Governor Askew’s time in office,” said . The main problem at the Department of Corrections is that we have so much turnover, bad actors are able to realize that they can outlive their bosses in their professional careers. And, so we’ve got to determine how to create more stability in that agency and just as a state, we cannot allow a system to continue that doesn’t protect those that are in our in custody.”
That was also part of a report by a Florida State University think tank called Project on Accountable Justice. It talks about how, including Crews, there have been six Secretaries appointed over an eight-year period. PAJ Director Deborah Brodsky says the goal is to help launch a discussion about bettering the Corrections system.
“The agency secretary is such a critical position, we thought providing some options for consideration would be helpful,” said Brodsky. “One way to do that would be to extend, to sort of decouple that position with the actual term of the Governor by extending it to five years. You know, there are several options that could be considered, including providing additional review and recommendation for the seating of this position from an oversight body which is broader than the Governor’s office.”
“We need to take a hard look at the prison system,” said Sen. Rob Bradley.
For the past two years, the Fleming Island Republican was charged with leading the Senate’s Criminal Justice budget panel. He says he’s looked at the PAJ’s report, and with recent events in mind, the prison system has been on the brain.
“I’m certainly deeply concerned about the events that we’ve learned that have occurred at some of the facilities around the state, and so, I’m very interested in having a robust discussion with the leaders of the Department of Corrections about where we go from here,” added Bradley.
And, his former Vice Chair and newly elected Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner agrees.
“We’ve got to reform our prison system without a doubt,” said Joyner. “People are dying needlessly that are incarcerated within this state. And, we’re going to get it right.”
For now, Governor Scott has not named a permanent agency head. So, Crews’ interim replacement is Tim Cannon, a deputy Secretary. His first day is December 1st.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.