Scott’s prison budget fails to include money to investigate record high inmate deaths

After years of slashing funding for Florida’s state prison system, Gov. Rick Scott released a proposed budget Wednesday that would inject $51.2 million in new spending into the troubled agency, but would fail to provide any new resources to investigate inmate deaths — which last year reached a record high.

The governor, who has said little about allegations of corruption, inmate abuse and the suspicious deaths of inmates under federal scrutiny, said he would allocate $17.5 million to fill 300 “critical’’ staff vacancies. But his proposal falls far short of the 654 vacancies that his new corrections secretary, Julie Jones, wanted filled in her budget request. Scott also provided no new money to boost the salaries of corrections officers, who have not received raises in six years.

Jones and prison reform advocates say fully staffing prisons and raising corrections officers’ salaries is key to retaining and recruiting quality corrections officers. Use of force in state prisons has almost doubled in the past five years, and critics say it has led to widespread abuse among untrained prison guards working 12-hour shifts in understaffed prisons.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said Scott’s proposal is “half good enough.”

“We need ... more boots on the ground,’’ said Evers, who surprised officials at Jefferson Correctional Institution and Suwannee Correctional Institution last week when he and his staff conducted unannounced inspections and found dangerously low staffing levels.

Jones told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week that she needed additional staff because “staffing is key to lowering the temperature” in prison facilities.

Scott’s budget also excluded $64 million requested by the state’s former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, who was suddenly fired just before Christmas.

Bailey, who claims that Scott’s staff inappropriately interfered with the independent agency, had asked for money to fund 66 new investigators, analysts and supervisors to handle the added caseload created when DOC asked FDLE to handle the probes. With the request still pending, scores of death investigations are in limbo.

The governor, in a press release, focused on the state’s low recidivism rate, noting that Florida’s crime rate is at a 43-year low. He also reiterated that he remains committed to making the prisons efficient and safe.

“I am proud to make important investments in the Department of Corrections that will reform our prisons and make our facilities safer for corrections officers and inmates,’’ Scott said in the statement.

But Scott made no mention about the scandal involving the state and federal probes into the brutal deaths of inmates across the state, or about alleged abuses that have led to the firings of more than 32 guards last year.

“The governor’s proposed budget doesn’t acknowledge the accounts of medieval brutality in our state prisons,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “The most effective way to change the culture and send a message that brutality cannot be tolerated is to hold guards and administrators accountable — but accountability requires investigations and investigations cost money.”

Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, a prison reform think tank, said that throwing money at the problem, however, isn’t going to fix what is fundamentally wrong with the agency.

“The thing that has to be funded is structural change; just putting more water in a bucket with holes in it won’t fix the problem,’’ said DeFoor, a lawyer, Episcopal minister, former Monroe County sheriff and former vice chair of Florida’s Republican Party.

The think tank, a non-partisan consortium of academics at Florida State University, issued a report in November that claims the state could save billions of dollars by cleaning up DOC. The best way to do that is by overhauling the system from top to bottom, and forming an independent oversight board to investigate prison abuse and other corruption that has cost taxpayers money.

On Monday, the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee will hold its third hearing on prison reform.

Evers, the chairman, said the governor’s budget must send a message that the state is going to fund the department so that the system is safe for corrections officers, inmates and communities. “We got a long road ahead of us,’’ he said Wednesday.

The governor’s proposal includes $15 million to rebuild aging prison infrastructure and $1.7 million to add security cameras with audio capabilities. State prison cameras, most of them outdated, do not have audio.

The Teamsters Union, which represents state corrections officers, seemed satisfied with the governor’s proposal, despite the fact that it didn’t call for raises.

“The Teamsters would like to applaud Governor Scott for his vision and support in funding the staffing needs at Florida’s correctional institutions,’’ said Mike Riley, the Teamsters’ statewide coordinator.

Scott also is asking lawmakers for a $7.9 million increase for prison healthcare, to be paid to two private prison vendors, Corizon and Wexford, both of which have faced criticism of medical neglect and poor treatment contributing to the record number of inmate deaths.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, would not commit to whether the House would support more substantive reforms. “We are open to having that conversation to see what would make them more successful in their endeavors,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa said the governor’s budget doesn’t go far enough to fund the FDLE investigation or to support the changes sought by Jones, whom he appointed last month to replace former secretary Mike Crews. Crews retired under pressure following a series of news reports in the Miami Herald and other news outlets that documented corruption in the prison system. Some say Crews tried to make substantive improvements but his efforts were mired in politics.

“He’s not giving her the resources she needs to do what she was hired to do,” Joyner said about Jones. “To not give the FDLE sufficient funds to investigate inmate deaths is abhorrent.”

The governor’s recommendation “puts the burden on the Legislature to fund the programs and to change the culture,” Joyner said.

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