Florida Prisons

Senate approves plan to create prison watchdog board

State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, presents a bill concerning prisons during a legislative session March in Tallahassee.
State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, presents a bill concerning prisons during a legislative session March in Tallahassee. AP

Responding to allegations of abuse and corruption in Florida’s prison system, the state Senate voted Wednesday to create an independent oversight commission with subpoena powers to investigate wrongdoing in the state Department of Corrections.

The bill, SB 2070, passed the Florida Senate 37-1. It would create the nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, invested with the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.

The proposal comes in the wake of months of reports about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the system’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

In the past four years, the agency has seen massive budget cutbacks and four different secretaries. Reported use-of-force incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, inmates deaths have risen and critics say understaffed prisons have spawned widespread abuse among prison guards working 12-hour shifts.

Seizing on the reports, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, conducted surprise inspections at several prisons and pushed for the sweeping reforms. The oversight commission was championed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who said he had “lost trust” in the ability of the $2 billion agency to police itself.

The Senate also began debate on its budget, which includes $6.9 million to pay for the oversight commission and $15 million to fill the deficit in the prison budget.

“Members, this was your bill,’’ Evers told the Senate, before the near unanimous vote. Only Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville voted against it. “Each one of you have had input and I appreciate the support that you have given me in passage of this great bill.”

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, commended Evers for legislation that provides “the key oversight necessary to implement critical programs to protect inmates from mistreatment, to strengthen the security of our prison system, and to keep Florida communities safe.”

But the measure faces an uphill fight in the House, which initially proposed a watered down bill that includes none of the added oversight. It also faces a potential challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, who has remained silent on the prison troubles as his agency secretary, Julie Jones, has blamed lack of funding and a few “disgruntled employees” for the allegations.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, said Wednesday they now are prepared to seek a middle ground, such as an alternative to the oversight board that holds the agency accountable.

Crisafulli said he supports creating a series of regional oversight boards, rather than a single statewide board. Trujillo said he is considering strengthening the role of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to independently investigate all homicides, suicides and suspicious inmate deaths without interference. “These are two huge steps,’’ he said.

Under the Senate plan, the governor would no longer have sole authority over DOC, the largest agency in state government. Future DOC secretaries would be appointed by the governor but require the consent of the independently elected Cabinet.

The nine-member oversight commission would provide an added layer of scrutiny, with members from different regions of the state. The board would have a budget and professional staff and would begin as soon as October 2015. It could conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors.

It would have the power to issue subpoenas, do regular “security audits” on institutions with the most violent inmates, and would even monitor video cameras to determine whether there are blind spots intended to shield areas from view.

The bill imposes penalties on employees caught using inappropriate force against inmates, requires more frequent reports about the performance of private medical companies and attempts to prevent retaliation against those who speak up.

Inmate healthcare also would come under increased scrutiny, as the oversight board would have the ability to monitor medical reports, and families of inmates could pay for independent medical exams that the private providers would be required to recognize.

Since the state turned over inmate healthcare to two private prison vendors, Corizon and Wexford, complaints of medical neglect and poor treatment have increased and are believed to be contributing to the record number of inmate deaths.

The bill also would make non-violent, elderly inmates eligible for special medical leave, and inmates who are military veterans would be given special housing options.

Five whistleblowers have filed lawsuits against Inspector General Jeffery Beasley and the department for allegedly retaliating against them because they made claims of possible criminal wrongdoing and cover-up in the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution.

But the bill would leave in place the structure of the inspector general system, which allows the office that is supposed to investigate wrongdoing, corruption, fraud and abuse to refer those investigations to the very prisons that are subjects of the complaints.

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