After a spate of questionable inmate deaths in the state prison system and a steady increase in the use of force by guards, a Senate committee began discussions Monday into what it described as substantial reforms to the state’s prison system.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard from a former psychotherapist at Dade Correctional Institution who condemned the system as “riddled” by a minority of guards who are “sadistic, amoral sociopaths.”
It heard the interim commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement explain why the department needs to hire 66 more staffers and spend $8.4 million to investigate inmate deaths at state prisons.
And it heard the recommendations from a prison reform task force that suggested the only way to change the system is to impose a new oversight board that rocks the agency at its foundation, and “change the culture.”
“Hopefully by the end of the session, we will have some changes that we want to see at DOC,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, chairman of the committee. The goal, he said, is to create a system that results in “a change of attitude” at the agency, as well as an improvement in the work environment for corrections employees, who have not seen a raise in seven years.
The task, while ambitious, will not be easy.
The committee must negotiate the politically charged arena that includes the state’s prison guards, members of a powerful labor union that has the allegiance of several politically ambitious legislators. It also must appease influential reform advocates — some backed by the Koch-brothers on the right, others by George Soros on the left — who believe the current system is an expensive, abusive failure.
And it must find the money for any fixes in a year when Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders are already promising to use the $1 billion in new revenue on tax cuts and increases in the education budget.
“This prison system is too broken for one person, one secretary or one governor to fix,’’ said Allison DeFoor, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, a consortium of four universities, including Florida State.
DeFoor, a lawyer and Episcopal minister whose background includes a stint as Monroe County sheriff as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Everglades czar, said that change is long overdue.
“We did all of this together over many, many, many years and it’s going to take all of us to get out of it,” he said.
The Project on Accountable Justice has been working on bringing evidence-based changes to the prison system since 2012, but its mission was elevated after a series of reports in the Miami Herald on suspicious inmate deaths, agency cover-ups and an increase in the use of force by prison guards.
DeFoor said the scalding death of inmate Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional Institution, who was locked in a shower specially rigged to inflict pain and left there for two hours, helped bring public awareness to the systemic problems.
“The spectacle of a prisoner cooked like a chicken shocked all of our consciences,’’ DeFoor said. “This is America. We don’t do that.’’
George Mallinkrodt, a former psychotherapist in the transitional care unit at Dade Correctional Institution for three years, told the committee what he had told the Miami Herald and chronicled in his self-published book, Getting Away With Murder.
He said he watched as inmates were “tortured and killed’’ by abusive guards and that when he and others tried to raise objections they were ignored or retaliated against.
“The Florida Department of Corrections is riddled with sadistic, amoral, sociopaths and the people who enable, support, and cover-up their crimes,’’ Mallinckrodt told the committee.
He described how grievances — written complaints sent up the chain — were “routinely hijacked by guards” and abusive use of force became commonplace in the absence of impartial, independent investigations. He talk of the “Red Room,’’ where inmates were taken for beatings, and spoke of how inmates were ordered to clean up the blood trail.
“This small minority is tainting the work of the majority of hardworking professionals,” he said.
After the Miami Herald revealed details of the deaths of Rainey and Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was repeatedly blasted with chemicals after complaining about an ailment, the DOC entered into an agreement with the FDLE to conduct an investigation of all suspicious inmate deaths.
But Rick Swearingen, FDLE interim director, said the scope of the task was broadened when former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey verbally agreed to investigate all deaths, even those seemingly from natural causes, after the Herald reports in June.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, responded that he wants to see that verbal agreement put into writing. DeFoor said the agency is wracked by “structural issues,” from crumbling buildings that haven’t been properly maintained to chronic staff shortages and no pay increases for most staff in seven years.
“If this was the third world and making clothes we would call this a sweat shop,’’ he said.
The Project for Accountable Justice recommends legislators remove the state prison chief from under the governor’s sole authority, extend the term of the secretary and make her bosses both the governor and the Cabinet. It also proposes an independent advisory council that has authority to inspect prison records and make unannounced visits.
Mallinckrodt recommended that correctional officers be required to wear body cameras, that healthcare employees be required to report abuse or be fired, and that a toll-free abuse line be created for inmates and DOC personnel willing to come forward.
He also recommended that guards be given personality screenings before they are allowed to handle mentally ill inmates. But, he said, he was pessimistic that many current employees will be able to change.
“Leopards don’t change their spots,” he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas