Editorials

Prison firings still not enough

Department of Corrections chief Michael Crews is cracking down. Friday, he fired 32 corrections officers with long records of complaints — from inmates, their family members and whistleblowers on the inside — of unchecked brutality and violence. This follows several more dismissals the week before.

In light of the unsolved deaths in Florida prisons that have occurred on his watch, in addition to the allegations of those who have survived the kicks to the head, the head slams against concrete, the toxic gassing — all meted out by corrections officers — he had to do something. But is that “something” getting to the root of the problem?

The good news is that Mr. Crews and his administration are at last confronting the issue of the most cruel and violent guards on the public payroll — the most notorious among them being Rollin Suttle Austin, who has been accused of doling out dozens of beatings and ordering other atrocities. His badge, his gun and, apparently, his know-nothing supervisors all gave him the authority to commit the wrongdoing that has been alleged.

What remains disappointing is that Mr. Crews is leading from behind and, possibly, ineffectively. Those Friday-night firings came just in time for the story, written by Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, to appear on Sunday’s front page. The timing appears suspect, and as Ms. Brown’s story noted, the dismissals “came as the department knew that the Miami Herald was about to publish a story about Austin’s long, unchecked history of abuse complaints, and how he and other corrections officers have been able for years to take part in allegedly unprovoked attacks and gassings of inmates.”

In addition, none of those fired have criminal charges against them yet, and they have a right to appeal. They could be reinstated.

These incremental changes are not going deep. They are simply addressing the most immediate problem — monster guards — and taking the most expedient path to “solve” the problem — getting rid of them. Mr. Crews must make clear to all who work for him — and on behalf of taxpaying Floridians — that what is happening behind prison walls is utterly unacceptable.

The root of the problem clearly starts farther up. The prison guards’ union leader, Les Cantrell, was on point: “I’m not telling you that people shouldn’t be disciplined, but taking it out to the first line of officers doesn’t fix your middle management or your upper management.’’

Mr. Austin’s 2012-2013 performance evaluation highlights much of what’s wrong:

“Provides for the supervision, care, custody and control of inmates in this facility in accordance with department rules and procedures.”

On a scale of 1, “unacceptable,” to 5, “exceptional,” Mr. Austin’s supervisor — Col. P. Bellelis — was apparently so impressed with his subordinate’s professionalism, that he rated him “5” in this category.

Mr. Austin was “exceptional,” too, in the areas of providing “appropriate direction, guidance, mentoring and support” to his staff and willingly handling additional duties.

Then this: “Mr. Austin is quick to advise me of any unusual incidents or anything that requires my attention.”

The problem is, too many supervisors — the leaders — throughout the system do not think unexplained beatings, gassings and deaths are “unusual incidents.” Mr. Crews needs to disabuse them of that notion.

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