Broward County

House proposal rejects independent prison oversight

Allison DeFoor
Allison DeFoor

A 51-page prison reform bill intended to weed out abuse and corruption at the state’s troubled corrections agency has been whittled down to a modest 12 pages in the House amid quiet opposition from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.

The House proposal, which will get a hearing on Tuesday, abandons a Senate plan (SB 7020) to require the agency to be accountable to an oversight board.

The full Senate will debate its proposal on Tuesday as well.

House leaders intend to address the state’s prison problems, documented in a series of stories in the Miami Herald, by increasing staffing levels and providing more building repairs, as has been requested by DOC Secretary Julie Jones.

“Ultimately, the governor is accountable for the actions of the secretary and the secretary is accountable for the success of the department,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, which will hear the bill, PCB CRJS 15-07, on Tuesday. “If the department is a failure, they need to search for new leadership.”

Trujillo said that while he agrees an oversight board “could be productive,” House leadership believes it could also create “a layer of bureaucracy” and so the House bill “is a work in progress.”

The House bill tracks the Senate bill word for word but with major exceptions: It eliminates the independent oversight commission that would follow the model of several other states and the Florida Department of Transportation. The Florida Corrections Commission would hold agency officials accountable for prison budgets, discipline and investigations.

The House plan also removes the requirement that the Department of Corrections secretary report to both the governor and the Cabinet, eliminates the Senate plan to clarify inmate grievance rights as well as a plan to allow the commission staff to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private contractors. It removes additional oversight of prison medical care and does away with a plan for more transparent reporting of use of force by prison guards against inmates.

Left in the House bill are proposals to increase prison building inspections, require specialized training for sexual abuse investigations, remove the opportunity for gain time for sexual offenders and increase the opportunity of gain time for inmates who get a GED, saving the state about $1.2 million a year.

The House bill also requires the state to more accurately estimate the number of elderly inmates in the system and provide for more “security audits.” It makes the existing Memorandum of Understanding, which requires that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate all suspicious deaths at DOC, a matter of law.

In place of additional reforms, the House wants to focus on restoring money to the chronically underfunded prison system, proposing $16 million to fill an operating deficit and hire new corrections officers, $11 million to increase food service costs, $15 million for fixed capital outlay and $2.6 million to replace aging buses, vans and cars. The Senate budget includes additional funding for similar programs.

But the House bill is a non-starter for the Senate leaders, who have made the reforms a priority in the wake of reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

“The House bill does not address the problem and anything short of what we have proposed is far too minimal,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who has conducted surprise visits at nearly a dozen prisons.

He said he is confident in Jones’ ability to turn the agency around but believes “she needs tools and working with this commission could help her get there.”

Spokesmen for Gov. Rick Scott and Jones declined requests to comment on the bill, but Jones has told legislators she will “fix what needs to be fixed” at the agency and has lobbied against the oversight commission.

Jones has also defended officials at DOC, including Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, who have dismissed allegations that prison officials caused or contributed to several suspicious inmate deaths. She has said the unexplained deaths are not a “crisis” and blamed the allegations of cover-ups on “disgruntled employees.”

At least seven members of the DOC inspector general’s staff have lodged allegations that high-ranking officials at the agency have systematically attempted to cover up their findings of corruption and avoided attempts to seek prosecution for criminal allegations.

The House plan drew criticism Monday from non-partisan advocates for prison reform.

“The Senate approach takes what a lot of other states have done successfully — which is to put a lot more eyeballs on the problem,’’ said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, a non-partisan advocate for evidence-based prison reform at Florida State University. “The House, at this juncture, doesn’t seem to be taking that approach, which we think is a mistake.”

DeFoor said the Senate plan threatens the groups that benefit from the status quo — state bureaucrats, labor unions and the private prison industry, which operates seven of Florida’s prisons. He added: “What is really threatening is a system that spends over $2 billion of taxpayer money, creates more crime and kills people doing it.’’

He said Georgia’s conservative governor, Legislature and attorney general joined forces four years ago to reform its prison system and the changes have resulted in a 7 percent drop in the prison population, fewer inmates cycling back after being released and a cost savings to the state.

“If we don’t change the structure in this system, we will be back a year from now having the same conversation,’’ DeFoor said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached by and @MaryEllenKlas