Disturbed by stories of suspicious inmate deaths and systemic abuse by guards, a Florida State University think-tank called Thursday for an overhaul of the state prison system to stem the tide of corruption, mismanagement and maltreatment.
Florida’s inability and unwillingness to address the system’s widespread failings is dangerous to the public, costly to taxpayers and, in many cases, fatal to inmates, who are often treated inhumanely, the group’s report says.
The Project on Accountable Justice, a think-tank made up of influential academics and headed by a former South Florida judge and sheriff, contends that the state could save taxpayers billions by cleaning up the Florida Department of Corrections.
The report came out just as the department’s inspector general, Jeffery Beasley, issued his annual report showing that complaints filed with his office nearly doubled in 2013-14 over the previous year. The IG investigated 16,000 of the 59,000 complaints generated.
Beasley’s report also shows that instances in which force was used on inmates jumped 16 percent over the previous fiscal year, and they have nearly doubled since 2008.
Beasley lists several accomplishments over the previous year, including establishing a cellular phone forensics lab and 10 regional evidence collection areas. The report doesn’t mention any initiatives on his office’s part to address the systemic problems that have plagued the prisons.
The department issued a statement pointing out that Secretary Michael Crews has, in the past few months, enacted a series of reforms aimed at bringing more accountability to the agency.
“We see promise in the reforms that we have initiated and the progress that we are seeing through our actions,” the statement said.
The reforms were prompted in part by a series of articles by the Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, the Palm Beach Post and the News Service of Florida exposing corruption and inmate abuse in the prisons.
Allison DeFoor, the project’s chairman and a former Monroe County sheriff and judge, said the group was alarmed by the stories, calling the treatment of some inmates “horrible, medieval and un-American.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he is encouraged by Crews’ recent initiatives, but believes the Legislature needs to take a fresh look at the agency and possibly consider some of the proposals put forth by the think-tank.
“I would anticipate that we would have a robust discussion about the future of the department and to hear from the secretary and governor’s office to make sure these things that have happened in the past do not happen again,” said Bradley, who serves on the committee that oversees the prison system budget.
The report included a series of recommendations, including:
▪ Follow the lead of Texas and Georgia and create a public safety oversight commission that would set policy and standards for prisons. The commission would have the authority to inspect all corrections facilities, adult and juvenile; obtain all records related to a facility’s operation or condition; conduct confidential interviews with prison staff and inmates and develop recommendations for improving the system.
“You can’t run a corporation this size without a board of directors, so how can you run a $2.3billion enterprise without accountability?” DeFoor said.
▪ Raise the minimum standard for hiring corrections officers. The current educational standard is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Also, set up incentives to encourage corrections officers to pursue post-secondary education and advanced training. And set up a voluntary early buyout program to encourage those employees who want to leave to do so.
▪ Decouple the terms of Department of Corrections secretaries from those of the governors who currently appoint them. One option would be to have the corrections commission either appoint the secretary or be “integrally involved in the vetting, hiring and performance process.” Another would have the appointment of a secretary be subject to approval by the state Senate, as with the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
▪ In addition to punishing inmates, make a concerted effort to rehabilitate them.
“As taxpayers and citizens that bear direct financial and societal costs of incarceration and recidivism, Floridians should expect more,” the report says.
With 20,000 employees and more than 100,000 inmates, Florida’s prison system is the third-largest in the country.
While other states have initiated prison reform in recent years, Florida continues on a trajectory of expensive, outmoded and abusive practices in its prisons, DeFoor said. Governor Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers — on both sides of the political aisle — need to take a hard look at what is wrong with the state’s prisons, the former sheriff added.
The body that produced the report includes several influential figures, both Democrat and Republican: FSU President Emeritus Sandy D’Alemberte; former Florida Attorney General Richard Doran; former FAMU President Fred Gainous; St. Petersburg College President Bill Law; Jeff Kronschnabl, instructor in charge, St. Petersburg College of Policy and Legal Studies; and David Rasmussen, dean of the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.
The study notes that the department’s leadership has changed six times in the past eight years.
“The Department of Corrections is crying out for stability, consistent leadership and specialized, professional guidance,” the report says.
Republican State Rep. Matt Gaetz, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, agreed that a lack of continuity and leadership has been a challenge that has plagued the agency for years.
“We’ve gone through far too many secretaries at the Department of Corrections and that lack of continuity has created a culture that people are able to believe they will outlive the tenure of the secretary,” he said.
Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief, contributed to this story.