The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) has been under intense scrutiny recently as the Miami Herald has been probing the unresolved story of the death of Darren Rainey, an inmate at the Dade Correctional Institution.
There are as many as 10 open investigations of inmate deaths in DOC facilities. In addition, four DOC investigators filed a whistle-blower complaint, presenting an increasingly alarming picture of potential corruption and criminal activity.
In Florida, few mechanisms exist for external oversight of criminal-justice matters — specifically, for monitoring prisons. While we have institutionalized accountability throughout other public policy arenas like education, we have yet to address this in criminal and juvenile justice.
Prisons are largely insular to protect the public. But a lack of transparency is unacceptable when it threatens the protection of those inside locked facilities. These public institutions — even if they are privately run — should not be so closed off as to become unsafe, or so insular that it prevents healthy public scrutiny.
Imagine a $2.3 billion corporation running without a board of directors’ oversight. That is what it happening in the DOC.
Now consider education in Florida: There are expectations of accountability, through test scores and school grading, teacher and principal performance pay, local school board reviews, college and state university boards of trustees, and, at the state level, the boards of education and governors. And although stakeholders don’t always agree on what or how things need to be measured, accountability, oversight and transparency mechanisms are deeply embedded in the fabric of education.
But the same cannot be said for criminal justice.
While the deaths under investigation may be viewed as separate occurrences (and responsibility may ultimately be tied to a few who are found directly culpable), there is a shared thread of distressingly limited transparency. Defensiveness of this magnitude points to a larger, continuing challenge that demands a more-systemic approach toward public accountability in Florida’s correctional facilities.
When Gov. Rick Scott was elected, his transition team provided many recommendations. Among them, that the inspectors general of both the departments of Juvenile Justice and Corrections be made independent and, rather than report directly to the secretary of each agency, should instead report to the governor, the Legislature, and the agency. A variation of this was passed by the 2014 Legislature as HB 1835 and has now been signed into law by Gov. Scott. It will help to provide more arms’-length distance for these government watchdogs — up until now reporting to the agencies themselves — to be better positioned to perform their oversight functions and is a step in the right direction. But it is only one step.
A second recommendation called for the creation of an independent advisory council responsible for external oversight of both the departments of Juvenile Justice and Corrections. Charged with monitoring the conditions of all Florida correctional facilities, this body would be empowered to walk into any facility at any time — juvenile and adult — with access to every corner, inmate, employee and record.
A third recommendation called for a Special Advisor Deputy Chief of Staff to the Governor for Public Safety to act as liaison to and coordinate with the advisory council, local governments, the Legislature, reentry networks and various criminal-justice stakeholder groups. The latter two recommendations have not yet been heeded.
Oversight doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In fact, more attention to our correctional institutions can bring several benefits: expanded opportunities for public and private collaboration; safer work environments for correctional professionals; proactive deliberation to address challenges, problems and crises; public platform for budget and policy matters toward better outcomes; and fewer deaths and lawsuits.
As a 2006 Vera Institute of Justice report notes:
“What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day’s shifts. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all.”
Deborrah Brodsky is director of the FSU Project on Accountable Justice, a partnership of Florida State University, Baylor University, St. Petersburg College, and Tallahassee Community College dedicated to advancing public safety through evidence and research.