Editorials

Hard facts about hard time

The new secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections went before the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and went off-message. It’s about time somebody did. Julie Jones told lawmakers last week the inconvenient truth that the prison system is in deep trouble.

She went beyond stating the obvious — after all, it’s clear that the system is dysfunctional — and drilled down, candidly telling senators why. And she did it with none of the obfuscating double talk that Floridians have grown weary of hearing from the heads of troubled state agencies.

Ms. Jones said that there is a “staffing deficit,” created when lawmakers closed 23 prisons, axed more than $1 billion from DOC’s budget and trimmed more than 2,500 staffers. She said the DOC employees haven’t received raises in six years.

But lack of funding is not the only culprit. She agreed that there is a “culture” problem in the prisons and that corrections officers’ training is grossly inadequate. To say the least. That twisted culture gives some corrections officers the go-ahead to beat, torture and scald inmates to death. It pits inmates against one another, with the strongest, meanest one left standing. And it allows women behind bars to be sexually used and abused by supervisors. Last week, Marty Martinez, an assistant warden at the Lowell Correctional Institution, was one of 44 prison staffers around the state fired for misconduct. Mr. Martinez — nicknamed “Daddy” — preyed upon women inmates.

We commend Ms. Jones for this housecleaning, but it should be only the beginning.

She told lawmakers, bluntly, that prisons run by private companies are allowed to “cherry-pick” the least expensive and least violent inmates, which leaves the most difficult and violent for state-run institutions.

In addition, these providers’ standard of healthcare falls far below what they have been contracted to do, she revealed. Worse, in a state that penalizes public schools that fail to meet state-mandated standards, there are no penalties for violating medical standards or failing to provide adequate medical care.

Lawmakers must have flinched when Ms. Jones called out their good buddies in the private prison industry. With its deep pockets come campaign time and its armada of lobbyists, the industry has pretty much been allowed to write the rules under which it operates. Come next session, will lawmakers really have the backbone to put the industry on notice that its laxness can no longer be tolerated?

Ms. Jones said that she is seeking $16.5 million to raise salaries and to hire 160 new staffers, including corrections officers and those needed to fill positions in probation, healthcare and education; she wants to mix it up and have supervisors and officers work different hours; develop new use-of-force criteria; and add more treatment beds for mentally ill inmates. She also wants $116.5 million over five years to repair aging infrastructure.

We urge Ms. Jones to stay the course, to stand firm in her belief that the prison system can be vastly improved. Unfortunately, Floridians have seen other agency chiefs appointed by Gov. Rick Scott charge ahead in full reformer mode, only to leave, defanged and defeated.

Lawmakers and Mr. Scott — who will release his budget this week — have gladly paid millions upon millions to maintain substandard, murderous conditions in Florida’s prisons. Can they really think Ms. Jones’ budget request is too much to turn that around?

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