House Prison Reform Bill Passes First Panel, But Some Say It Doesn't Go Far Enough

Apr 7, 2015

Prison reform advocates Gemma Pena (middle) and George Mallinckrodt during a House hearing Tuesday.
Credit Florida Channel

The House’s prison reform package passed its first committee Tuesday. Several opposed the measure, hoping it would do at least as much as its Senate counterpart.

Aimed at reforming Florida’s troubled prison system, the House’s prison reform bill includes a formal agreement between the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that the FDLE investigate inmate deaths, projections are done for the state’s elderly prisoner population, and the DOC’s Inspector General and investigators get specialized training.

Those same areas are part of a similar bill in the Senate. But, during the bill’s first hearing in the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, some drew comparisons between the House and Senate bill, like how the Senate measure only includes more training for correctional officers.

“I think the Senate Bill [7020] requires correctional officers who have close contact with inmates housed in mental health treatment facilities complete an annual training in Crisis Intervention, and do specialized training for managing mentally ill inmates. Is that contained in your bill, [HB] 7131,asked Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg).

While bill sponsor Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami) says it’s something he’d consider including, he says no amount of specialized training will help change the culture.

“And, I think some of the short comings that you’ve seen and that you’ve read about is not based lack of training,” replied Trujillo. “I don’t think a single person will say, ‘Pouring scalding hot water on a person that’s handicapped on a person who’s mentally handicapped is lack of training. My three-year-old child knows that’s wrong. My 16 month old child knows that’s wrong. There’s no training that’s going to fix that cultural problem.”

The House measure changed the measure Tuesday to include five geographical regional offices to provide oversight of the prisons. The directors would be appointed by the Secretary.

That differs from the nine-member oversight commission only contained in the Senate proposal.

And, some wondered how much teeth these boards will have, including José Javier Rodríguez (.D-Miami)

“SB 7020 creates the Florida Corrections Commission,” said Rodríguez. “It would conduct investigations, inspections, monitoring, provide an annual report, and would be composed by nine- members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. I’m trying to better understand how regional offices will help solve a lot of the problems that you’re describing.”

FSU's Project on Accountable Justice Chairman Allison DeFoor says not only would he be in favor of an oversight commission, he says the House proposal could do more to help change what he calls a “structurally broken” system.

“It’s been underscored in recent weeks—last week, specifically—with the arrest of two current and one former correctional officers who were Klan members trying to kill a prisoner who had been released, gassing, and the boiling of a prisoner alive…this thing is really bad! We believe it’s structural. Not everybody in the system is bad. In fact, the overwhelming majority are good. But, how many apples does it take to ruin an apple basket if you don’t get it out? And, that’s the problem here,” said DeFoor.

And, referring to the money put into the budget to cover the department’s staffing and building maintenance, George Mallinckrodt, a former DOC mental health counselor, agrees.

“Fixing some new buildings and hiring some new guards will not change this culture,” said Mallinckrodt. “Unless this culture is changed substantially, a certain percentage of new guards will become abusers themselves.”

One mother, Gemma Pena, testified on behalf of her son, Christopher, a mentally ill prisoner housed in Lake Correctional Institution. She says he’s refusing to take his meds and is currently in solitary confinement. Pena says to her, the Senate bill offers more protections for mentally ill inmates, like her son.

“Please help Christopher and other mentally ill prisoners to regain their balance by initiating appropriate treatment and converting their environment into one that will protect their body, their minds, and restore their humanity,” said Pena. “SB 7020 has provisions that will hold prisons more responsible by creating checks and balances and providing that oversight through a corrections commission that the Florida prisons crucially need.”

And, while he says he appreciates all the input, bill sponsor, Trujillo, says with regard to the Senate’s oversight board, he calls it “passing the problem onto someone else.”

“Why do we sit up here and say, ‘we’ll create these nine people who won’t be appointed now, who have to be confirmed by the Senate next Session—so now we’re talking 6,9, 12 months delay—and then if they are confirmed next Session, we’re looking at 18 months before any of this starts.’ Is any of you going to come up here and meet with this panel? Are you going to volunteer and listen to this panel and listen to their hearings? So, why are we going to acquiesce that power to a person who’s completely unaccounted for,” he asked.

Some other areas Trujillo may be looking to change in the measure include looking into having an independent Medical Examiner that’s not selected by the correctional facility. The measure also changes some sentencing requirements for certain offenders so they can be housed in county jails.

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