House Prison Reform Package Heads To Floor, Will Include More Changes

Apr 14, 2015

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The House’s prison reform package is now heading to the floor, after passing its last committee Tuesday. But, even though the measure went through more changes, some say the bill—that still differs from its Senate counterpart—is now heading in the wrong direction.

To help revamp Florida’s troubled prison system, the Senate’s version of the bill includes provisions that adequate health care is given to inmates and specialized training for prison guards.

It also includes a nine-member oversight board that can do surprise inspections and conduct investigations into correctional facilities—championed by many prison reform advocates.

“An independent commission—appointed by the Governor and ratified by Senators that can’t take place in at least 12 months—will put us in a worse position than where we currently are,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, during the bill's last committee hearing. “I think the true reform that has to take place is not aggregating our responsibility to others.

While that particular provision is not contained in the House version, it does include five regional boards. And, its bill sponsor Miami Republican Trujillo changed the measure Tuesday to clarify their role.

“They’re tasked with reviewing inmate grievances, tasked with reviewing use-of-force reports, tasked with doing drop-in site inspections unannounced, [and] reviewing, recommending, and holding subordinate chain-of-command staff responsible for appropriate and measured disciplinary actions,” added Trujillo.

Trujillo’s measure now also includes videotaping all non-reactionary encounters between inmates and correctional officers when chemical agents are used. There’s also a new provision that creates a body camera pilot program at the mental health units at Union Correctional Institution. Trujillo says it’s needed.

“It’s one of the institutions with the highest use of force reports,” he continued. “The purpose of the pilot program is to make sure that when the cameras are running—and it’s our intent that they’re running 24-hours a day, 365 days a year while the officers are having contact with inmates— while they’re running whether the camera as a deterrent will limit the excessive use of force.”

But, there was bipartisan opposition to this particular provision. That includes Rep. Julio Gonzalez (R-Venice).

“Understand the intent…unfortunately, I’m very, very concerned about the privacy rights of the inmates and how this will infringe upon them, beyond their abilities to control it—particularly under the provisions of a very aggressive Sunshine Law,” said Gonzalez.

Still, Trujillo says the real debate should center around whether the privacy of inmates and correctional officers outweighs the need for public safety.

“I always put myself in the position of some of the most vulnerable…we’re talking about severely mentally ill inmates in very, close-confined quarters. If I was that inmate or it was my son or my daughter, my wife, or my mother, I think their public safety would by far trump their expectation of privacy, and I think that’s the approach that I’m coming with,” Trujillo replied.

The measure also includes a provision aimed at rooting out corruption within the agency—particularly the Inspector General’s office—which does internal investigations. The agency has been plagued by inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups.

“I cannot understand for the life of me why some of these deaths had occurred and why some of the reporting was so poor. There’s only one agency that’s tasked with reviewing that reporting, and that office is the Office of Inspector General. And, I think it’s a shortcomings from the top all the way to the bottom,” said Trujillo.

So, the bill’s newest change includes a provision that makes it easier to fire investigators within the Inspector General’s office—who currently fall under a protected class.

“And every single one of them has to know that if you don’t do your job and if you cover up corruption and cronyism, you will absolutely will be held responsible, hopefully in a court of law, and if it doesn’t rise to that level, your job will no longer be safe,” Trujillo continued.

But, several Democrats, like Rep. Dwight Dudley (D-St. Petersburg), criticized the move, saying what’s really needed is an oversight commission instead of what he called “destroying officers’ rights.”

“You clearly have a zeal for trying to correct this problem, but it does seem to be going in the wrong direction in terms of taking away career service protections, especially for the lower level workers,” said Dudley. “What we truly need is an independent body, a commission, someone, some entity that can be fearless in their policing of what happens in our corrections system and hopefully, we’ll get to that at some point.”

Still, Trujillo says as the bill moves forward, he’ll consider more suggestions—adding the measure is still pretty close to the Senate’s proposal—despite there being no oversight board.

“This, by far, is not a finished product,” Trujillo concluded. “It is absolutely still a work in progress. And, if you look at our bill and the Senate bill, there’s 23 total provisions between both bills—15 of ours is contained in the Senate.”

And, the measure passed the House Judiciary Committee 15-3 with some Democrats opposed. It now heads to the House floor. Meanwhile, the Senate’s prison reform package has already passed that chamber.

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