Reforming our prisons


Gov. Rick Scott’s executive order affirms that the state of Florida is serious about prison reform. And his signature should just be the beginning of what must be done to eliminate the well-documented and flagrant brutality that has been allowed to fester behind prison walls.

When the 2015 legislative session lurched to an abrupt and unseemly end because of the House-Senate breakdown over Medicaid expansion, several important issues fell into the abyss, left unaddressed and, essentially, dead. Prison reform was one of the most pressing.

Mr. Scott, however, stepped in — and stepped up. Through his executive order, signed last week, the governor put remedial legislation that got derailed back on track. The Senate had taken the lead during the session to put reforms in place. The chamber was led, and pushed, by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who deserves all due credit for taking on this issue with resolve.

The stories unearthed by Herald writer Julie Brown — who this week won the 2015 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for her work — were horrific. Corrections officers scalding an inmate to death, or meting out beatings, rapes and gassings — while supervisors looked the other way. Whistleblowers were punished. The inspector general was lackadaisical. Brutality and criminality went hand in hand.

Sen. Evers held hearings, showed up unannounced at corrections facilities and was working on tough legislation when the session hit the wall — the House closing up shop three days early. The governor’s executive order puts initiatives from both the House and Senate in motion.

They tighten up on regulations governing the use of force in state prisons; protect staffers who report wrongdoing from retaliation and make administrators track more closely the use of the chemicals sprayed in order to subdue unruly prisoners.

In addition, any employee who resorts to physical force or who sanctions the use of force must sign a report, under oath, within a day of the incident.

In addition, sexual-abuse investigators will have to undergo specialized training.

Most, if not all, of these reforms were already within the power of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones to put in place. That Gov. Scott has added his own imprimatur to the push for change should give her the confidence to fully implement these more stringent guidelines — and to push for more. The reforms represent progress, yes; however, they also represent what had become a weak-tea version of reform initiatives in the Legislature.

The Senate pushed to create an independent prison-oversight commission, something that was opposed by leaders in the House. Why would House lawmakers not want to know what is and isn’t working in the prison system, how effectively taxpayers’ money is being spent and how to improve conditions not only for inmates but especially for corrections officers and other workers doing a difficult and dangerous job?

Sen. Evers and others on the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee also are right to be concerned that the agency’s current inspector general’s office has been far from diligent in getting to the bottom of the many bloody, brutal incidents in corrections facilities and the coverups that followed. It’s doubtful that DOC can, or should, police itself.

The Senate was right to seek more muscular reform. It shouldn’t give up this fight. The reforms ordered by Gov. Scott are overdue and welcome, but they only skim the surface.