Prisons in the spotlight


The state Senate is on its way to getting the most bang for the 6.9 million bucks that the Appropriations Committee wants to put into pulling the Department of Corrections out of its pit of iniquity. It would create an oversight commission to investigate abuse. It’s a signal that state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and committee members are off to a good start.

Not so in the House, unfortunately.

Last week, the committee voted unanimously in support of SB 7020, which would create the Florida Corrections Commission. Its nine members would have the authority to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and abuse in Florida’s prisons. Commission staffers could make surprise inspections of the state’s prisons, including, most important, those run by private contractors. It would require special training for sexual-abuse investigations and “in the effective, nonforceful management of mentally ill inmates who may exhibit erratic behavior.”

The big push is a direct result of reports in the Miami Herald and other media outlets of horrific instances of torture, abuse, gassing and killings that corrections officers have meted out, mostly with impunity, and the many coverups that followed. In some instances, coverups weren’t necessary because those in authority did a great job of ensuring that no outside scrutiny ever intruded.

The proposed Florida Corrections Commission, however, can only be as effective as its membership. As the bill wends its way through the session, lawmakers should reconsider how its nine members are appointed.

Right now, the governor would names all of its members. That could be a recipe for maintaining a dangerous status quo if a governor decided to pack the panel with industry insiders. It’s been done, which is why little progress was made under Gov. Rick Scott in comprehensively reforming negligent assisted living facilities.

To really get the difficult task of prison reform done, lawmakers should allow independent bodies of experts from areas such as the legal and mental-health communities, the judiciary and, yes, the prison industry to make recommendations to the slate of nominees.

Last year, 346 inmates died behind bars in Florida prisons, a record. Most died from natural causes. Of course, when sick prisoners die because they were denied medical attention, an accusation made against several institutions, is the death from natural causes or from calculated neglect?

Sen. Evers has done a laudable job putting his legislative muscle behind substantive reform. He has made unannounced visits to tour facilities in North Florida, held hearings seeking testimony from corrections employees and now is pushing his reform bill.

Credit, too, South Florida lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee — Sens. Anitere Flores and René García, both Republicans, and Democratic Sens. Gwen Margolis and Chris Smith — for recognizing the need to act.

So it’s a baffling disappointment that the House version of this bill decimates SB 7020’s attempts to impose oversight. In fact, the House completely eliminates the Florida Corrections Commission. This would be an irresponsible, head-in-the-sand approach. People are being raped, tortured and killed in the institutions that lawmakers, ultimately, sanction — and that their constituents, indeed all taxpaying Floridians, are funding.

It’s still early in this 2015 legislative session, and we can only hope that House lawmakers come to their senses.