Prison reform bill dies in wake of House, Senate feud

tit for tat:  The House ‘dumped it on our doorstep,’ says Sen. Andy Gardiner.
tit for tat: The House ‘dumped it on our doorstep,’ says Sen. Andy Gardiner. AP

A plan to increase oversight of the state prison system and impose new penalties on officers who injure inmates died in the Florida Senate on Wednesday, another casualty of the hostilities between the feuding chambers.

Working solo after the House abruptly adjourned the day before, the Florida Senate unanimously voted to reject a prison reform compromise bill that was passed last week by the Florida House.

“They changed it. They dumped it on our doorstep, and we’re going to dump it back on theirs,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, after the Senate vote.

The bill, SB 7020, was then added to the list of high-profile bills completed by the Senate but sent back to the now-empty House, which had abruptly left town Tuesday in protest over the impasse over budget talks and healthcare policy for the uninsured.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the Senate opposed a provision of the compromise bill that would limit the scope of a joint House and Senate select committee with authority to investigate the Florida Department of Corrections.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, who agreed to the compromise with Evers, said he was disappointed in the Senate’s decision.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “They worked really hard and so did we. We’ll be back in August and start looking at this again.”

Gardiner credited Evers for calling attention to the troubles plaguing the Department of Corrections, which has had an 109 inmates die in custody in the past year and is under investigation for several suspicious inmate deaths. He said Evers persuaded House leaders to take the issue seriously.

“To them it wasn’t an issue,” Gardiner said.

Evers used his committee to demand answers from the Department of Corrections about news stories in the Miami Herald and other news outlets about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, along with claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general suppressed criminal complaints and ignored inmate abuse.

He put DOC Secretary Julie Jones and her chief inspector general, Jeffery Beasley, under oath. He conducted surprise inspections of several prisons and he persuaded reluctant lawmakers that the agency had lost the ability to police itself.

Faced with opposition from both the House and the governor’s office, Evers agreed to scale back his original plan to create an independent oversight board to monitor the agency, subpoena records and hold officials.

The compromise divided the state’s prison system into four geographic regions, each with its own director. It created a new third-degree felony for employees who withhold water, food, and other essential services from inmates and authorized prison employees to anonymously report abuse to the inspector general.

But the proposal also removed several more rigorous provisions included in the Senate bill and depended on the Senate president and House speaker to follow up with the creation of a joint select committee to pursue prison reform.

Gardiner said he is prepared this summer to assign Senate staff, and the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to continue the investigations into the troubled agency.

“We will put our corrections committee on the road within a couple of weeks, and they’ll do their own investigations,” he said. “I can subpoena people. We’re not done with that. It’s unfortunate that the House did what they did.”

Allison DeFoor, chairman of the prison reform advocate, the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said he was encouraged by Gardiner’s decision.

“The very serious issues around Florida’s prisons are now out in the open for all to see,” he said. “They will be addressed in an adult way. The only question remaining open now is who will do the addressing.”

George Mallinckrodt, a former prison mental health counselor, who has called attention to allegations of abuse at Dade Correctional Insitution, warned that the demise of the legislation “means business as usual for abusive guards and the administrators who cover for them.”

“I believe the FL DOC is a powder keg waiting for the tiniest spark. When people have their dignity stripped from them and are dehumanized and disrespected, they will rebel,”he said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

Related stories from Miami Herald