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As Omnibus Prison Reform Package Heads To Full Senate, What Will House Do?

Sascha Cordner

A comprehensive prison reform package is now headed to the Senate, but is the House getting ready to start making its own move to reform Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections?

The omnibus bill’s main sponsor is Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) in his role as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“It tries to revamp some of the inequities we’re having in the Department of Corrections,” Evers said, during the bill's last Senate hearing. “We have my committee and some of the other Senators have done some surprise visits, and these are things that we have found that need to be corrected.”

The prison system has been plagued by inmate deaths and allegations of inmate abuse. Evers’ measure attempts to address some of the problems, like making sure correctional officers have proper training and it creates an independent oversight board that can conduct its own investigations and do surprise inspections.

Judy Thompson with Forgotten Majority—a group that has for several years received letters from inmates and correctional staff to help root out the abuse—applauded the measure. She drew comparisons between a 1973 study called the “Stanford prison experiment” that had to be stopped early because of the alarming results. In it, 24 male students were selected to participate to act as either guards or inmates.

“And, the officers began to taunt the students were role-modeling as inmates, and that went from insults to doing petty tasks over and over again, demeaning types of behavior,” explained Thompson. “The other thing that came out of this study is that there’s three types of officers: there’s good, there’s tough, but fair, and there are those that are cruel. And, this bill (SB 7020) helps to safeguard and protect those inmates within the Florida Department of Corrections against those cruelties.”

Still, while he likes the overall bill, Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) shared an earlier complaint he’d had with one provision that tries to ensure adequate health care is provided for the inmates by putting criminal penalties in place.

“Corrections officers certainly should never abuse an inmate,” said Negron. “But, let’s not fool ourselves that there are occasions when someone serving a life term—what do they have to lose by making an allegation against someone that may or may not be warranted? So, I want to make sure we’re fair. I think this bill does a good job of protecting those interests, and if we can resolve the criminalization of failure to do certain things, I think this could be a reform effort that we could all be proud of.”

Evers, who is expected to work with Negron, took a bit of an issue in his closing remarks.

“So, yes, I do want to protect our Corrections officers, but I do also want to protect the inmates,” replied Evers. “And, that was the reason that I had the language in there, or still have the language in there, that Senator Negron would like to remove, and what it is, it’s to stop the abuse by certain officers that’s of the mindset that to abuse is a form of Correction.”

And, the bill is now headed to the Senate floor, after passing the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously Wednesday.

Meanwhile, compared to the Senate, the House has been relatively silent on its own prison reform package. So, is it a priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli?

“Well, we’re certainly paying attention to what’s going on over in the Senate,” said Crisafulli, speaking to reporters Wednesday. “But, I’ve left that up to the chairs.  I know they have talked to me about it. You know, Chair Metz has actually done some visits himself, doesn’t really talk about them a lot because he’s just out there doing the research. But, I’m leaving it up to my chairs and they’re certainly engaged in the issue. But, we’re paying attention to what’s going on over there as well, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Crisafulli has tasked Rep. Larry Metz with taking the lead on the issue in his capacity as chair of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. Still, with the exception of making the surprise prison visits, there hasn’t been much talk of it in his committee.

But, the lead Democrat on that panel, Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), says the House is still very much engaged on the issue.

“We just want the world to know that the House is not silent on this issue,” said Rouson, during a press conference Thursday. “And, even though the Senate may be getting more press because of some questions they’re asking, some hearings that they’re doing…we’re watching all that and taking that into consideration. And, on the Approps side, we’re acting on that.”

And, just what are some of these actions?

“We have heard that part of the tension and pressure that’s been on the Department of Corrections is because of understaffing because vacancies have not been able to be filled,” added Rouson. “And, maybe that contributed to lack of safety for inmates as well as lack of safety for Correctional officers. So, Chair Metz has decided this year that we’re going to fill those agencies, and we’re going to have some proviso that will make sure Department of Corrections spends that money on the vacancies and not shift it towards other things.”

And, Rep. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando), who’s the lead Democrat on the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, says a similar measure to the Senate’s proposal is expected to be taken up in his committee next week.

He says it contains a lot of similarities, like specialized training for officers and making sure there’s more avenues for inmates to report abuse. But, Bracy says there’s one area of the measure he wishes was added: the independent oversight board.

“Republican leadership felt that the Department of Corrections should not be penalized without a proper opportunity to fully fund it,” said Bracy. “And, if they are understaffed and overworked, how about we consider providing the staff to have a conducive environment in the prison system before we penalize them with an oversight commission. So, they felt like it was a bad tag that they could have, and it was something that they didn’t deserve—that’s what they felt about the Department of Corrections. So, let’s give them an opportunity to get it right.”

Still, he says even without the oversight board, the House’s proposal still contains “a lot of teeth” to hold the state prison system accountable. That measure is expected to get its first hearing Tuesday.

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