Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Florida Needs to Get out of Prison Rut

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Florida Needs to Get out of Prison Rut

Article excerpt

(This is the second of three editorials)

The very people charged with investigating potential abuses are themselves the targets of state officials.

It smells like a cover-up at the highest levels of the Department of Corrections when state inspectors, who testified under oath at a recent Senate hearing, said they were asked by superiors to ignore criminal evidence of wrongdoing by corrections employees.

"A criminal charge filed on a high-ranking colonel or a warden or an assistant warden would obviously be a black eye on DOC," explained former Department of Corrections inspector Mike Harrison, now the sheriff in Gulf County.

Harrison said he'd been asked twice to cover up problems.

TOP-DOWN PROBLEMS

Florida's prison system is in peril.

Inmates are dying, facilities are crumbling, prisoners are abused, staff members are bullied and threatened by superiors.

The system is in "a crisis," according to state Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), chairman of the Senate panel.

The cause of the trouble bubbling in Florida's prisons is rooted in the very framework of how the state and the Department of Corrections have set up the criminal justice system, ranging all the way from how sentences are meted out to how released inmates are welcomed back into their communities.

"What we have is several decades of experimentation that's been left untested and unaccountable," according to Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice. "We need to very thoughtfully restructure the system and continually review it."

Florida has been stuck in a rut of mismanagement for decades.

It's the only Southern state, for example, that hasn't embarked on a policy of "justice reinvestment" - the strategy of bringing in specialized federal help to work with the state to identify and import best practices in prison management from around the nation.

NEW LEGISLATION IS HOPEFUL

A bill was submitted in 2008 that would have required the state to engage in just those kinds of programs. It passed and the Senate funded it, but the House failed to fund its part. The project died.

A new piece of legislation, SB 7020, is under consideration that would have gone a long way toward restructuring the system and adding in protections for both inmates and prison staff. It is looking very promising in the Senate where the bill is awaiting final approval.

But its future is now in doubt as the House companion bill, HB 7131, has nowhere near the power of the Senate bill.

In particular, the most promising component of the Senate bill, which would require the establishment of a nine-member independent oversight commission that could probe allegations of corruption, fraud and inmate abuse and neglect, is nowhere to be seen in the House bill.

Yet that committee is desperately needed as prison oversight has been a joke in this state. …

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