Nathan Deal is nobody’s idea of a liberal. This is the guy who rammed the infamous “Guns Everywhere Act” through the Georgia Legislature last year, allowing gunslingers to pack heat in churches, bars, nightclubs, libraries. Before that, he made his name railing about undocumented immigrants. Gov. Deal is just plain crazy right wing.
So if ultra-conservative Deal has the guts to champion prison reform amid the loony politics of a state like Georgia, why the hell can’t we get some like-minded leadership down here in a state of comparatively moderate inclinations.
Surely, Rick Scott must have noticed, now that he’s on his fourth Department of Corrections secretary in four years, that something’s amiss with Florida’s prison system.
Over the last year, the Miami Herald has been reporting one horrific incident of inmate abuse after another. During Gov. Scott’s tenure, prisoners have been routinely doused with pepper spray and tear gas by guards, treatment that left some them dead in their cells. In one ghastly incident, a mentally ill prisoner died after being locked in a scalding shower closet.
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The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating more than 100 prison deaths of inmates.
Guards regularly covered up their involvement in suspicious deaths, while the DOC’s Inspector General’s Office pretended not to notice. Several current and former inspectors told state legislators that they had been ordered to ignore evidence of guard brutality. This testimony was elicited despite an order from the DOC hierarchy warning inspectors to keep their mouths shut.
All that, yet the governor had little to say about Florida’s prison crisis. Not even after the last week’s corrections scandal reverberated through the national media with the arrest of three guards charged with plotting the murder of a black inmate at DOC’s Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. The guards were identified as members of the Ku Klux Klan. To put it more specifically, they ran with the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
When a prison employee adopts the title “Exalted Cyclops,” it may be time for a governor to take notice.
Not our governor. After months of news stories that begin, “In the latest scandal out of the Florida prison system,” Scott has remained oblivious. The corrections calamity didn’t rate a mention in his January inaugural address.
Up in Georgia, meanwhile, Gov. Deal has made penal reform a personal mission. Over the last four years, under Deal’s leadership, mandatory minimum sentencing has been modified. Judges have been given more discretion in sentencing.
While Florida has been brutalizing inmates, Georgia has added prison education programs. The famously conservative governor has pushed through programs aimed at reducing the number of juveniles and adult non-violent drug offenders in Georgia lock-ups. The state’s prison population, which had been rapidly increasing in the years before Deal took office, has been reduced from 56,432 to 53,383. “A lot of people said that’s not a topic that a Republican governor ought to be talking about,” Deal told the Summit on Criminal Justice Reform last month.
But a Republican governor, at least one interested in leadership, can do exactly that and couch it as a fiscal necessity. Scott oversees a prison system with more than 100,000 prisoners and 22,000 employees that sucks $2.3 billion out of his annual budget. Surely, it must have occurred to his political consultants that Floridians expect their governor to repair this $2.3 billion sump of mismanagement, abuse, killings and cover5-ups.
Back in 1968, when stories were seeping out of the infamous Dozier School for Boys about mysterious deaths and horrible mistreatment, Gov. Claude Kirk made a surprise visit to the state juvenile lock-up in Marianna. He was outraged by what he found. “If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d be up there with rifles,” Kirk said.
Gov. Scott ought to try an unannounced visit to a Florida prison. He might have a similar revelation.
Instead, it was Senate Criminal Justice Chair Greg Evers who showed up for unexpected visits to two troubled prisons in North Florida, Jefferson Correctional and Suwannee Correctional, where inmates had rioted in 2013 and where an inmate died under suspicious circumstances in 2014.
“I’m sorry to be the only fool who has taken it on himself to check it out, but I don’t like dog-and-pony shows,’’ Evers told my Herald colleague, Mary Ellen Klas.
Evers is another right-wing Republican (and a darling of the NRA), but he managed to guide a progressive bill through the Senate with a 36-1 vote that would establish a nine-member independent oversight commission. His bill would enable prison commission members to make surprise inspections and confidentially interview prisoners or employees. They could investigate allegations of corruption or abuse. A grievance process for the inmates and their families or lawyers would allow for independent medical evaluations. Old or profoundly ill inmates could be released early.
Evers championed a real reform bill. Except the House of Representatives version, still awaiting a final vote, doesn’t do much, with no oversight commission, with no new rules on accountability.
If Rick Scott had a sudden urge to demonstrate leadership, he could convince state representatives to support amendments that would bring Florida urgently needed prison reform. Maybe the governor should make a surprise visit to the House.