Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott orders prison reforms similar to those proposed by lawmakers

Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott Miami

After months of silence as Florida’s prison system came under fierce legislative criticism, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday issued an executive order requiring the head of Florida Department of Corrections to make several changes to the troubled agency that she already had the power to do.

“The department’s number one focus is the safety of Florida’s correctional officers, communities and the inmates in state custody and supervision,” Scott said in a statement late Friday in announcing the order.

The governor’s action directs DOC Secretary Julie Jones to implement many of the changes suggested by the Legislature as part of a watered-down prison reform plan agreed to by the House and Senate before the session melted down in disarray.

The bill became a casualty of the end of session impasse over healthcare funding when the Senate, which had led the charge for reforming the agency, backed off its agreement to abandon an independent oversight commission that was opposed by Jones and the House.

After the bill died, Senate President Andy Gardiner announced the Senate would create its own select committee, led by Sen. Greg Evers, to investigate the agency and hold officials accountable for inmate abuse, staff cover-ups and organizational inefficiencies that have plagued the agency for years.

Evers, R-Baker, said Friday he was encouraged by Scott’s order, but said the Senate will continue to convene its select committee.

“I still believe we have to have oversight,” said Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “Eighty-five percent of what they announced today they could have done without an executive order — and without the bill.”

The changes proposed by Scott, and initiated by Jones, focus on tightening regulations relating to the use of force, protecting employees who report wrongdoing from retaliation, and improving the tracking of chemical agents used to pepper spray disruptive inmates.

The agency will also require that each employee who either applies physical force, or was responsible for the decision to apply physical force, to sign a report under oath within one day of the incident.

Inspectors who investigate claims of sexual abuse also will be required to have specialized training and the agency will be divided into four regions, instead of three.

“The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to progress and reform through data-driven initiatives and actions,” Jones said in a statement. “Looking forward, it is critically important that this department continues in our efforts to be accountable to the people of Florida, our employees and the hundreds of thousands of inmates and offenders under our custody and supervision.”

The changes announced Friday leave unchecked many of the internal problems relating to contraband smuggling, intimidation tactics used to quiet complaints by inmates and other prison officials, and by prison officials that have drawn federal and state investigations.

For example, the agency’s inmate grievance procedures have been so flawed that Evers and other members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee had concluded that problems with the leadership of the agency’s inspector general’s office made it impossible for DOC to police itself. Also problematic was the medical evaluation offered by the for-profit healthcare providers.

The Senate proposed creating an independent oversight committee to provide an independent review of allegations and patterns. It also wanted to give the families of inmates the power to conduct an independent medical evaluation when an inmate is injured or becomes ill in prison.

None of those changes, nor any of the House-initiated proposals aimed at reforming the agency’s Inspector General’s Office, are included in the governor’s executive order.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Related stories from Miami Herald