The prison problem

Mentally-ill inmate Darren Rainey died in a scalding hot shower in 2012 while an inmate at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade.
Mentally-ill inmate Darren Rainey died in a scalding hot shower in 2012 while an inmate at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade. Florida Department of Corrections

The problems at Florida’s Department of Corrections are so enduring, so ingrained in its deeply flawed culture that solutions are beyond the capability of just one leader.

Whoever replaces DOC chief Michael Crews should know that from the get-go. Mr. Crews found out the hard way and resigned this week after almost a year of revelations that inmates have been starved, tortured, denied medical treatment and killed by corrections officers on his watch.

But rather than launch a crusade against the brutality — and criminality — allowed to fester at DOC facilities around the state, Mr. Crews stood silent in the face of the initial disclosures. When he finally spoke up, he didn’t issue his full-throated disgust. Rather, he identified a few administrative patsies and meted out firings or suspensions, saying the he was getting rid of the “few bad apples.”

It was an underwhelming response, which gave his top law-enforcement officer, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, the cover to barely lift a finger to get to the bottom of any of the incidents. These included the scalding-shower death of Darren Rainey at the Dade Correctional Institution in South Dade and the refusal of guards, nurses and doctors to help inmate Michael Branham, who had collapsed in pain, and later died. Then there are corrections officers shaking down inmates and smuggling in contraband.

So, first and foremost, the new corrections chief should be someone who actually acknowledges that something’s very wrong at DOC and that it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Second, the leader needs to be more than a manager keeping the lights on; he or she must have the experience and vision for real reform, which won’t be easy. Shawshank Redemption, anyone?

Third, and this is a big one, Gov. Rick Scott, who will make the appointment, and the Legislature, which will provide funding, also have to believe that DOC needs deep, abiding reform. If they don’t demand it, nothing will improve.

Unfortunately, Mr. Crews was cast in the same mold as the leaders of other troubled departments, most notably the Department of Children & Families.

They ran from crisis to crisis, tamped out the flames and conveyed that all was well. That’s not leadership, that’s firefighting. (Wansley Walters, the former head of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, was a notable exception.) In the case of DCF, it took the public revelation of more than 500 dead children and teens to put Mr. Scott and lawmakers on the spot before real reforms were realized.

In the case of DOC, the victims are not cute and innocent; they do not necessarily elicit the same sympathy. But that’s no excuse to allow taxpayer-funded brutality and murder to exist. These challenges are not going to be solved internally; the prison system is too insular.

The Project On Accountable Justice, based at Florida State University, has made well-grounded recommendations for true reform in the state prison system. Project director Deborrah Brodsky outlined three in a Miami Herald Other Views article in July, including making the DOC, and DJJ, inspectors general independent, rather than beholden to the department chiefs. The state already has taken a small step in this direction: the creation of an independent advisory council responsible for external oversight of both DJJ and DOC; and the appointment of a special public-safety adviser to the governor.

But first, Florida leaders must admit that they have a problem.