Gemma Pena traveled from Hialeah to Tallahassee to plead with a House committee Tuesday to establish a prison system that is “less lethal to our mentally ill” and “holds prisons more accountable.”
Her son, Kristopher Rodriguez, had been treated for mental illness for years when he was convicted of shooting someone during a drug deal. Now, housed in confinement at Lake Correctional Institution, he is “being allowed to make his own health decisions” and refuses to take his medications, his mother told the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee Tuesday. She said he is kept isolated, without a cellmate.
Rather than rehabilitate him, she said sobbing, the prison has made him “gravely ill.” She urged the committee to abandon HB 7131, and embrace a more robust Senate proposal that imposes oversight over medical care of sick inmates and allows families like hers to conduct an independent assessment of an inmate’s health.
“Kristopher hasn’t always been mentally ill,’’ said Pena, a cardiovascular technologist. “In fact, he was a child who won awards for academic excellence. He had every promise and future ahead of him and every expectation for success. However, mental illness changes everyone’s life and no one here is exempt to that.”
Despite appeals from Pena and several other prison reformers to strengthen the proposed legislation, the House committee voted to make minor adjustments to its bill and then passed it by a 10-2 vote.
The House bill would impose additional oversight on the Florida Department of Corrections by adding two administrative regions to the existing three, adding 10 executive positions and spending $1.2 million more on hiring staff, but leaves in place the same structure that prison reformers say has contributed to reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the system’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.
By contrast, the full Senate has passed a bill, SB 7020, that would create a nine-member oversight commission with the power to investigate and subpoena employees and hold them accountable for reforming the system.
Under an amendment added to the House bill, the five regions would oversee fewer prisoners. The plan allows judges to sentence offenders to county jails for up to 24 months, allowing the inmates to stay close to their families — unless the county signs a contract with another prison and transfers them.
The House bill also would require the state to provide for more “security audits” and make the existing memorandum of understanding that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate all suspicious deaths at DOC a matter of law.
The committee’s approach is supported by House leaders and Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. They are seeking to offset the more aggressive Senate plan. Contributing to the divide is the current feud between the House and Senate over how to resolve a $4 billion budget difference over the future of health coverage for the uninsured.
“It’s not a crisis situation. It’s much worse than that,’’ said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project for Accountable Justice at Florida State University.
He said recent news reports tell how inadequate the current system is. These include the arrests last week by federal officials of two current and one former corrections officers who, as purported Ku Klux Klan members, are alleged to have plotted the death of a former inmate; a report that an offender on probation was raped by a probation officer, and other reports that inmates have been fatally gassed.
“This thing is really bad,’’ he said. “We believe it’s structural. Not everybody in the system is bad, but how many bad apples does it take to ruin a basket?”
George Mallinckrodt, a mental health professional who says he lost his job at Dade Correctional Institution after speaking up about mistreatment of inmates, told the committee the House bill “just doesn’t go far enough,” warning that it could send a message that current practices are accepted.
He said “inmates are subjected to a wide range of abuse on a weekly basis” because the system is “plagued by a deeply entrenched, multi-generational culture of corruption, retaliation, brutality and secrecy.”
“Floridians need the strongest legislation possible to make the horror stories from prisons a thing of the past,’’ he said.
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, agreed with the critics that there was a need for a change in culture but questioned the effectiveness of an oversight panel.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to hire Superman who is going to be able to show up and reform the whole place,’’ he said after the meeting. “I think it’s a combination of having additional oversight...that truly drills down and identifies issues."
Trujillo said he is open to adding provisions to the House that impose accountability measures on the department, but also said he would like to see a select committee review and investigate the department over the summer.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas