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Prison Reform Bill May Be Dead, But Advocates Remain Hopeful Reform Will Occur

Dan Bannister

Prison reform may be officially dead this session, but prison reform advocates remain hopeful there will be some meaningful reform for Florida’s troubled prison system.

During the earlier part of the last week of session, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) remained optimistic about prison reform. Bradley had a huge role in helping craft aspects of the bill.

“Well, prison reform is something that I’ve been very passionate about, and it looks like we’re almost there. So, I feel confident that we’ll have meaningful prison reform this session. But, we have a week left, and we need to certainly cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s on that issue,” said Bradley, at the time.

But, after the House adjourned three days earlier than the scheduled date Friday amid a budget impasse with the Senate, Senate President Andy Gardiner announced the death of the proposal.

“I look at the list of bills that when you go into the last three days of session—when you have a House and Senate as partners working together—that will not make it because of the actions of the House: the Corrections bill that Senator [Greg] Evers brought forward to this chamber and this body with an oversight commission. The last three days of session, you should be negotiating that as a partner. That bill’s not going to make it,” said Gardiner, following the House's departure Tuesday.

Both the House and Senate proposals had some similarities and some differences, but both bills began to align after the House passed the omnibus bill. One major difference was the Senate’s version originally had a nine-member oversight board that could conducts its own investigations and do surprise inspections into correctional facilities. But, the House stripped that out of the bill, in favor of the creation of a Joint Legislative Committee—with members appointed by the House Speaker and the Senate President. But, that language was actually never incorporated into the latest version of the House bill.

And, the Senate President was not pleased.

“And, so we sent a very good work product with an independent commission to oversee our Department of Corrections,” said Gardiner. “They changed it. They dumped it on our doorstep, and we’re going to dump it back on theirs.”

Neither was Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who led the Senate’s prison reform effort.

“I feel the bill that the Senate actually came up with was an outstanding bill and was right for the people of Florida—at the point, that they made the move to take out that language out of the bill…at that point, I felt like they had not negotiated in good faith and left their intention all along of doing nothing,” stated Evers, speaking to reporters Tuesday.

And, on the floor, when the bill came up for a final vote in the Senate Wednesday, Evers made similar remarks.

“A lot of the things that they added can be done right now,” said Evers. “It wasn’t reform. The Secretary can do the majority of the things that they tried to add under the pretense that we were making changes, and we were saving lives.”

The House proposal included the expansion of the Department of Corrections regional offices and their roles, making it easier to fire investigators within the department, and the creation of a pilot program.

Evers says they left out a lot of areas that would have made an impact, like tracking use of force incidences, more training for prison guards—not to mention the oversight commission.

“I was really disappointed,” said George Mallinckrodt, a former DOC mental health counselor. “You know, I worked pretty hard on trying to get something passed.”

Mallinckrodt says he was pretty encouraged with the work product so far that the Senate had proposed.

“Well, they had a lot of felony consequences for abusing inmates, for medical neglect, the oversight commission was the most important thing, they were looking at putting cameras in, blind spots—positive developments really in, I guess you could say, the prison reform movement,” he added.

So, he says he still doesn’t understand why the two chambers couldn’t come to an agreement on this important issue.

“I don’t get it,” continued Mallinckrodt. “They’re all Republicans. Come one, and get together and make this happen. It seemed liked the two Houses were bickering, and meanwhile, inmates continue to be abused. Some of these abusive guards—their attitude I’m sure is business as usual. I mean they can breathe a huge sigh of relief that this bill is not passed.”

But, some don’t believe in the so-called “demise of prison reform.”

“Yeah, I knew that a lot of people in newspapers around the state are saying that this was the ‘demise of prison reform,’ but I don’t really see it that way. I mean that’s reporters seeing the glass half empty. I see the glass half full,” said Barney Bishop, the President and CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

Bishop says he was opposed to the oversight commission from the beginning.

“So, we were happy to see that go down,” added Bishop. “Why? You shouldn’t give nine people that’s supposedly would have no connection with the Department of Corrections the power to subpoena people, the power to meet at the prisons—both of which are going to create security issues.”

What he says he is in favor of is the Joint Legislative Commission, which he credits his group for giving the House that idea. Bishop adds what should be done is for lawmakers to allow the new Secretary Julie Jones to have ample time to get settled into the job and continue the reforms of her predecessor.

“Unfortunately, because of circumstances that were outside of her control, the legislature jumped in with a bunch of things,” continued Bishop. “But, I think this Secretary knows that everybody is watching what she does and how the department performs, and how it responds to the things that have been going on at the department, and I think that this will give her an opportunity to start turning the ship some more after the last Secretary, Secretary Michael Crews, had begun turning the ship, to begin with.”

Still, for now, all prison reform supporters and advocates agree that something should be done about Florida’s troubled prison system and lawmakers should continue to look into prison reform efforts.

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.