Florida Prisons

Florida governor orders more prison reforms

Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Getty Images

Two days after the release of a grand jury report assailing the Florida Department of Corrections in connection with an inmate’s beating death, Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday issued an executive order calling for an independent audit of the besieged agency.

The audit, to be conducted by the National Institute of Corrections and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, will focus on staffing and organization — and ways to improve safety, security and rehabilitation, Scott said.

It will allow the agency “to better identify what works and what doesn’t work, and apply lessons learned across the state’s entire correctional system,’’ the governor said in a news release.

The order seeks to empower the agency to better address the needs of inmates with mentally ill inmates. It designates two state prisons — Lake Correctional Institution and Liberty Correctional, neither in South Florida — to be used as “prototypes” for the agency’s reforms.

The move comes just two days after a grand jury issued a scathing rebuke of the agency for “numerous and disturbing deficiencies’’ by DOC staff leading up to and following the April 2014 death of 45-year-old Matthew Walker at Charlotte Correctional Institution.

Calling Walker’s death “tragic, senseless and avoidable,’’ the panel said corrections officers beat Walker so severely that they crushed his larynx and broke several of his ribs, then tampered with evidence, making a proper investigation difficult. Walker’s death was attributed to asphyxiation, and it was ruled a homicide.

While it didn’t issue an indictment, the Charlotte County grand jury said the actions of the officers were so abhorrent that it called into question whether the officers — and other DOC staff — were fit to serve the citizens of Florida.

Scott did not address the grand jury report.

The measures outlined by the governor on Thursday “expand” upon reforms already being implemented by Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, the governor said. He said the agency will continue to work to serve the mental health needs of its prison population, which, at 101,000, is the third largest in the nation.

The agency has been under fire for more than a year, accused by civil rights groups and others of fostering a culture in which corrections officers have been able to abuse, torture and medically neglect inmates at will. Last year, the agency recorded 345 inmate deaths, the highest number in its history. Reports involving use of force by staff have doubled over the past five years.

Prison reform advocates said Scott’s proposals are commendable, but don’t go far enough. Among other issues, the governor still hasn’t addressed the need for independent oversight, they say.

“This system is deeply broken,’’ said a statement by the Project on Accountable Justice, a Florida State University think tank that collects and analyzes data on criminal justice issues.

“Nothing short of structural change, ensuring ongoing oversight of a system that is its most dysfunctional in hidden places, will ensure the deep cultural change needed.’’

Jones, in a statement, said the governor’s directives show the state is committed to improving the agency.

“I applaud Governor Scott’s leadership and look forward to continuing to work together to transform the Florida Department of Corrections,’’ she said.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments