Senate plan would create independent oversight board for Florida prisons

By MARY ELLEN KLAS meklas@miamiherald.com Published Feb. 13, 2015

Florida’s prison system would undergo a historic overhaul that would require the troubled agency to report to an independent oversight board with the power to investigate and crack down on abuse and wrongdoing, under a proposal filed Friday by a key senator. 

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, filed a 40-page amendment to SB 7020 that weakens the governor’s authority over the Department of Corrections in the wake of mounting evidence that the agency can no longer police itself.

The agency has been pummeled by reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that its chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse. Reported use-of-force incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, and critics say it has led to widespread abuse among untrained prison guards working 12-hour shifts in understaffed prisons.

Under the plan, which Evers hopes will win legislative approval, future DOC secretaries would be appointed by the governor but would require consent of the independently elected Cabinet — a move that would dilute the governor’s control over the agency that has seen massive budget cutbacks and four secretaries in four years.

“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” said Allison DeFoor, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, a consortium of four universities that recommended the oversight board as one of the reforms needed to bring more accountability to the prison system.

He said that many governors have tried to fix Florida’s prisons and he believes legislators have concluded that Scott and Julie Jones, his latest DOC secretary, now need outside help.

“As Albert Einstein said, ‘the mind that created the problem cannot solve it,’’’ DeFoor said. “So it’s time to round up a posse and get this fixed.”

The amendment, which will be taken up at a Monday meeting of Evers’ committee, builds on a bill proposed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and a first draft of a proposal offered by Evers. It would create a nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, appointed by the governor, whose members would be subject to Senate confirmation.

Read the proposed amendment to form the prison oversight commission.

The bill also would impose penalties on employees caught using inappropriate force against inmates, require private medical companies to carry liability insurance in the event that negligent medical care results in harm to an inmate, and attempt to prevent retaliation against those who speak up.

The oversight board would begin as soon as Oct. 15, 2015, and have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations. The board could conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors. It would do regular “security audits” focusing on the institutions with the most violent inmates. And it would have the power to determine how effective video cameras are, and whether there are blind spots intended to shield areas from view.

“The goal is to bring accountability and transparency and give oversight to an agency that demonstrated that they can’t get there on their own,” Evers said, but he considers it only a first step. “I don’t feel it’s perfect, but we can’t get there overnight.”

For example, the amendment would leave in place the structure of the inspector general system, which allows the office that is supposed to investigate wrongdoing, corruption, fraud and abuse within the department to report to the same officials he is assigned to investigate.

Five whistleblowers have filed lawsuits against Inspector General Jeffery Beasley and the department for allegedly retaliating against them for claiming there was possible criminal wrongdoing and cover-up in the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution. The amendment fails to identify a source to fund the oversight commission.

Bradley, however, said he would support removing the investigators from the DOC to provide the staff needed for the oversight board to do the inspections, and is confident that detail can be worked out in the budget committee.

The troubles brewing inside Florida’s prison system came to light last May when the Miami Herald told the story of inmate Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional Institution. The 50-year-old, who suffered from mental illness, was locked in a scalding-hot shower that fellow inmates say was rigged to inflict pain and used on several prisoners. He was left in the shower for as long as two hours, until he collapsed and died.

Documents showed that investigations into Rainey’s death languished as neither the department nor Miami-Dade police approached key witnesses for interviews. In a series of stories the Herald chronicled the suspicious deaths and abuse of other inmates. One inmate, Jordan-Aparo, died after he was gassed in a small cell while pleading to be taken to the hospital for a medical condition. In other cases, inmates died mysteriously or were beaten under questionable conditions.

Evers and other senators began demanding answers from DOC, and Evers and his counterpart in the House. Rep. Larry Metz, began making surprise inspections at prisons in North and Central Florida.

The amendment “is a huge step in the right direction toward restoring trust in the department,” Bradley said Friday. “We will not have true reform unless we have an independent oversight board.”

The nine-member commission would be made up of members from different regions of the state and consist of a sheriff, a state attorney, a public defender, a pastor or prison chaplain, a community leader and a business leader.

Inmate healthcare also would come under increased scrutiny, as the oversight board would have the ability to monitor medical reports, and families of inmates could pay for independent medical exams that the private providers would be required to recognize. Since the state turned over inmate healthcare to two private prison vendors Corizon and Wexford, complaints of medical neglect and poor treatment have increased and are believed to be contributing to the record number of inmate deaths.

The bill also would provide non-violent, elderly inmates the opportunity to be eligible for special medical leave, and inmates who are military veterans would be given special housing options.