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Fla. Senators Get Prison Reform Update, Question New Inmate Death Probe Process

Florida Channel

Some Florida lawmakers are questioning whether the state’s prison agency plagued by allegations of inmate abuse can be trusted to accurately report suspicious inmate deaths. That issue arose in a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing Monday.

As part of a series of prison reforms in August, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been tasked with investigating more than 100 suspicious inmate deaths within the Florida Department of Corrections. Last year, the prison agency came under scrutiny for its handling of such probes. But, speaking to a panel of lawmakers Monday, Interim FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen says the new task requires more manpower and money his department doesn’t have.

“The way it’s being handled now is we respond to every death that’s attended and unattended, and as you saw in my presentation, many of those are non-suspicious in nature,” said Swearingen.

Credit Florida Channel
Florida Channel
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Interim Commissioner Rick Swearingen speaking to lawmakers Monday.

Swearingen says a third of the cases his department has investigated so far are closed, and he indicated he’d like to draft a new agreement with newly named DOC Secretary Julie Jonesthat may result in DOC sending over only what prison officials deem suspicious—which bothered Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island).

“Whether DOC is properly describing incidences as suspicious or not suspicious, isn’t that one of the issues that’s in question right now,” asked Bradley.

“That has been an issue in the past, yes sir,” responded Swearingen.

“So, why would FDLE’s position be that you’re depending on the department to tell you whether something is suspicious or not before you become involved,” continued Bradley.

Meanwhile, FDLE is so far asking the legislature for $8.4 million to hire more than 60 people to handle both the DOC investigations as well as use-of-force investigations across the state.

“Apart from the 104 DOC cases, the number of in-custody deaths and use-of-force investigations have increased 29 percent in the last five years,” said Swearingen, during his presentation. “FDLE receives requests from local, state, and federal entities for assistance in these types of cases. To meet these demands, the department has shifted resources and priorities. Given the current national climate surrounding use-of-force incidents, we expect growth in other parts of the state as well.”

Swearingen says the FDLE has already signed an agreement with Miami-Dade’s police department—one of the largest law enforcement in the country—to handle their officer-involved shootings and in-custody death investigations.

Stay tuned to Friday's Capital Report for more on this story!

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.