State Politics

Legislators take ownership of prison reform with new plan

AP

The investigative staff at the Department of Corrections would face an overhaul, officers who injure inmates could be subject to felonies, and the state would start a pilot project to put body cameras on prison guards under a prison-reform bill unanimously approved Friday by the Florida House.

The proposal is the first part of a bipartisan agreement between the House and Senate to address questions of inmate abuse, allegations of staff cover-ups, and evidence of organizational troubles that have been festering in the state’s prison system for years. The agency and its staff are also under investigation by both state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

The second piece of the agreement puts oversight of the agency squarely in the lap of the Legislature, which has promised to create a joint committee to police the DOC.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring true reform to the Department of Corrections and true transparency,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who negotiated the compromise with Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker. “How do we solve, how do we limit the amount of inmates who are dying in custody?”

The measure now must go to the Senate for final approval.

Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, began investigating the DOC in January in the wake of several reports by the Miami Herald and other news organizations about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general suppressed criminal complaints and ignored inmate abuse.

The Herald reported that Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old with severe mental illnesses, had collapsed and died in a 180-degree shower that witnesses said had been rigged by corrections officers to punish and control unruly prisoners at Dade Correctional Institution. Neither the DOC’s inspector general nor Miami-Dade police had investigated Rainey’s death as possible foul play or negligence, creating the appearance of a cover-up.

Shortly thereafter, four investigators with DOC’s inspector general’s office filed a lawsuit claiming that their boss, Jeffery Beasley, had pressured them to cover up the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of another inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died after he was repeatedly sprayed with chemicals at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010.

Both the Rainey and Jordan-Aparo cases have since been reopened for investigation by state law-enforcement officials.

Evers and Trujillo said the second goal of their reform plan is to create a select committee of legislators to scrutinize DOC performance, review treatment of inmates, investigate grievance trends, and monitor implementation of legislation. The committee would be created by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner and begin work in the fall.

“It will start changing the culture by bringing information to light,” Rep. Trujillo told the House before it voted 114-0 for the amendment to SB 7020. “When individuals in some of these facilities realize it’s immoral … to murder and injure people in captivity, the message we send will start changing this culture.”

Advocates commended the measure as a good step that was long overdue.

“People who are observed perform better than those who are not,” said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. “That is why we build stadiums.”

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

The compromise between the House and Senate removes several more rigorous provisions included in the Senate bill. For example, prisons must ensure each facility maintains a “retaliation-free” environment but does not require DOC to establish a policy to protect employees who report wrongdoing from retaliation.

Faced with opposition from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, the proposal also no longer includes elements that would have taken authority over the agency away from the governor.

Evers and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, originally proposed creating an independent oversight commission that would have the ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at the state’s largest agency. The Senate plan also would have required the DOC secretary to be appointed by a panel of legislators, with confirmation by the governor.

The compromise leaves the accountability of the agency and DOC Secretary Julie Jones to the governor, but Evers and Trujillo said the select committee will have the special authority to subpoena witnesses and put people under oath to correct what lawmakers believe is DOC’s inability to police itself.

“We’re laying the foundation for the department to effectively do the job that they’re required to do,” Evers said.

Although Scott has remained silent on the issues facing DOC, Evers said he is confident the governor will sign the bill into law.

The first issue to be addressed by the Legislature’s committee will be oversight of the inspector general’s office, Trujillo said. The bill requires that the entire staff, and the nearly 160 investigative positions in the division, to no longer be protected by the state’s career service system and they could be fired at will.

That provision worries some current and former DOC staff, including those who have testified before legislative committees about allegations of cover-ups and attempts by DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley to suppress investigations into claims of wrongdoing.

“I am fearful of making inspectors at-will employees,” wrote Christina Bullins, a former DOC probations officer who has sought whistleblower protection in a letter to Rep. Charles McBurney. “I believe that the at-will administrators already have too much control over the inspectors and the ones who will be brave enough to do the right thing when it comes to wrongdoing involving administrators will be the first to be fired.”

Trujillo and Evers said their goal is not to allow the agency to target whistleblowers but instead hold more administrators within the department accountable.

“We will not look at individual cases,” Trujillo explained. “But, if we see there’s a large amount of complaints at a certain facility — whether it’s medically related, use of force, whether it’s contraband — it’s our responsibility to find out why that’s happening at a facility and to correct that across the entire board.”

Under the bill, inmates with sentences of less than 24 months can be housed in county jails if the jails have contracts with DOC.

The measure also creates a pilot program to require corrections officers at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to wear body cameras and, Trujillo said, lawmakers hope to find the money to “expand it throughout the system.”

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

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