A shocking Miami Herald investigation into the condition of some prisons and the abuse of inmates, especially at Lowell Correctional Institute, makes it plain: Florida’s prison system needs not only an overhaul, but independent oversight of what really goes on behind those prison walls.
With the Florida legislative session less than two weeks away, some legislators want to take action while the outrage over conditions in our prisons documented by the Herald (as well as the state’s own studies) is fresh in the minds of the public and lawmakers.
Leading the way is state Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican from Florida’s Panhandle, who says his office has met with citizens and corrections employees to craft a bill “we can all vote on.” The key is the creation of a watchdog commission, Mr. Evers told the Editorial Board on Monday.
He said new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Judy Jones “has gotten the department under control, but we need another set of eyes and ears” at the department’s 142 facilities.
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That oversight can come from a state-created body — or the federal government, said Mr. Evers. “I would prefer a state commission,” he said.
Mr. Evers said his bill is in the idea stage, but its goals have come into focus.
“I want Florida inmates to be safe while in prison — and I want the same for our corrections officers,” Mr. Evers said.
And in a perfect world, those leaving our prison system would be rehabilitated. “You wouldn’t mind having them move next door,” Mr. Evers said.
For now, that’s fantasy. Many of the thousands of inmates released annually into the community have undergone little job training to re-enter society. They continue their lives of crime because our corrections system fails them. Thus the system also fails the taxpayers.
The shortcomings of our corrections system have recently been detailed in a study by Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Analysts toured prison facilities and culled the experiences and suggestions of nearly 300 corrections employees and inmates.
Their report concluded the state’s corrections system is poorly serving the citizens of Florida and the 33,000 inmates released annually. Over the last decade, despite a decrease in crime, the number of Florida inmates has grown from 80,000 to about 100,000.
In contrast, the number of corrections employees has dropped from 12,100 to 11,000, which means one officer may be responsible for 100 inmates.
Here are some possible suggestions to improve the system:
▪ Better pay for Florida corrections officers, who now earn about $31,000 annually, one of the lowest corrections salaries among the nation’s large states. Consequently, the turnover rate is high.
▪ Spend more wisely the $2 billion budgeted to Florida’s Department of Corrections.
▪ Heed the suggestion of police chiefs who have called for more treatment programs for drug and alcohol offenses and the mentally ill.
▪ Set up early release programs based on age, offense and medical condition.
Sen. Evers has taken the lead and deserves credit. Lawmakers should ensure that any “independent” commission is truly independent and focused on fixing decades of problems, not creating a new bureaucracy to maintain business as usual.