The Florida Senate on Wednesday put money behind its pledge to reform the state’s troubled prison system, voting to spend $6.9 million on system changes and create an independent oversight commission that would have the power to investigate corruption and abuse.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for the wide-ranging bill being pushed by Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, in the wake of reports of suspicious inmate deaths at the Department of Corrections, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.
The bill, SB 7020, would create a nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, appointed by the governor, and under the independent Justice Administrative Commission. The panel would have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.
The commission staff could conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors. It would do regular “security audits” focusing on the institutions with the most violent inmates. It would require specialized training for sexual abuse investigations. And it would expand gain time for inmates who complete education programs, saving the state about $1.2 million a year.
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Meanwhile, the House subcommittee on Justice Appropriations has discussed the issue but has advanced no similar legislation.
The most controversial provision in the Senate bill would establish new penalties for DOC employees or employees of private prisons who “willfully or by culpable negligence” neglect an inmate or cause bodily harm. It would making injuring an inmate a felony, with a separate charge for injuring a disabled or elderly prisoner.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, proposed removing that provision but withdrew his amendment, saying that he and Evers would work out a compromise.
“There are just as many or more corrections officers that have been attacked by inmates,’’ Negron said. “They are entitled to a presumption of innocence. They are in a very dangerous environment.”
He argued that the bill makes it a crime for the “failure to do something” such as not providing proper inmate health care.
But Evers countered that the penalties are not intended to punish officers that follow the agency rules but those who seek to circumvent them with “the mindset that abuse is a form of correction.”
Inmate deaths in Florida’s prisons have been “going straight up” since 2001 as use-of-force incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, he said, and the rise in abuse has corresponded with officers working 12-hour shifts in understaffed prisons and then being required to work four hours overtime.
“You’re doing that three to four days running, your nerves get on end because you don’t have the backup, then you start making foolish mistakes,’’ he said.
Judy Thompson, president of Jacksonville-based Forgotten Majority, which advocates on behalf of inmates, urged the committee to support the measure.
“We’ve waited a long time for a bill like that,” she told committee members. “There are three types of corrections officers: there’s good; there’s tough but fair; and there are those that are cruel. This bill helps to protect against those cruelties.”
In the past year, seven whistleblowers have filed lawsuits against Inspector General Jeffery Beasley and the department for allegedly retaliating against them for claiming there was possible criminal wrongdoing and cover-up in the deaths and injuries of inmates.
Additionally, the Herald and other news outlets have reported on a series of suspicious deaths. Among them:
▪ Randall Jordan-Aparo and Rommell Johnson, two inmates who were gassed by staff despite having asthma or a lung condition. As Johnson’s oxygen levels and blood pressure dropped, he was given a shower instead of first-aid. Jordan-Aparo pleaded for medical attention but was ignored. Both inmates died.
▪ Ricky Martin, a slightly built prisoner with a little over a year left on his prison term, who was beaten and stomped to death. It happened at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, the same day he was paired in a cell with a hulking, 260-pound lifer with a long history of abusing fellow prisoners.
▪ Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old suffering from mental illness, who died after he was locked in a scalding-hot shower for up to two hours until he collapsed. The specially rigged shower at Dade Correctional was allegedly used on other troublesome inmates to inflict pain.
Evers, who has visited several prisons, cited other abusive practices, including giving prisoners “airtrays” — a plate of food with a cover on it but nothing inside — gassing inmates without cause and turning off video surveillance machinery to prevent staff misconduct from being recorded.
“I could go on,’’ he told the committee. “Please support this bill.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas
Here’s how the $6.9 million would be spent for prison reform:
▪ $5 million diverted from deposits to the General Revenue Fund into the new State Operated Institutions Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, which would be spent on job training, literacy, substance abuse, faith-based and other programs;
▪ Approximately $1.3 million for personnel, equipment, and expenses of the new Corrections Commission;
▪ Approximately $800,000 for added personnel and expenses to enable the Correctional Medical Authority to increase the frequency of its surveys of correctional institutions;
▪ Approximately $1 million to provide mental health training for correctional officers;
Additionally, the bill would reduce costs by approximately $1.2 million by decreasing the inmate population through the award of gain time for educational achievement while behind bars.