Drastic Measures Are Needed to Get Serious, Clean Up Prison Mess by Paula Dockery

Posted: February 16, 2015 in News and politics

Kudos to state Sen. Greg Evers for not only talking about cleaning up the prison mess, but also showing through his actions that he means business.

Evers, chairman of the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, has been conducting hearings during legislative committee weeks and has taken testimony from a variety of stakeholders and experts.

The last meeting included new Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who has held the post for less than a month.

A little history on the revolving door of leadership at the DOC is in order.

Jones is the fourth secretary to serve under Gov. Rick Scott in the past four years and the seventh to serve in the past eight years.

The lack of continuity is a huge problem at DOC.

While scandal, deaths and questionable activity are common in the prison system, 2014 was exceptionally troubling — the deadliest year ever, with deaths up 13 percent.

Additionally, there were reports of sex with prison staff, selling of contraband and excessive use of force.

The prisons are understaffed, officers are undertrained and underpaid, facilities are crumbling and morale is incredibly low.

Moreover, those investigators responsible for monitoring what goes on in the prisons had to seek whistleblower protections when the administration discouraged and discounted what they had to say.

Drastic measures are indeed warranted.

That is why the tag team of Sen. Evers and Secretary Jones offers so much promise.

Evers went above and beyond when, unannounced and at night, he dropped in on two prisons — Suwannee and Jefferson — to see for himself what was going on.

A staunch supporter of our public prisons and the hardworking men and women who work there, he seems determined to get rid of the bad apples and provide the resources, training and morale boost the others need to better perform their duties.

And Jones is a no-nonsense career law-enforcement official with extensive experience as an administrator of a large government agency.

She has already dismissed 44 prison staff across the state and identified a problem at Lowell, a women’s prison.

She fired Marty Martinez, an assistant warden affectionately known as “Daddy” inside the prison fence, for inappropriate behavior.

Jones also offered refreshing candor when questioned by members of Evers’ committee about private prisons being able to cherry-pick the less expensive inmates.

Within days, however, she walked some of her comments back.

It seems someone in the administration was unhappy with that degree of honesty.

This type of micromanaging is detrimental to the goal of reform.

The administration seems to ignore any lessons learned from its earlier interference.

But then again, the administration is also on its fourth chief of staff in as many years.

Scott’s first DOC secretary, Ed Buss, a respected prison reformer lured here from Indiana, was forced out by then chief of staff Steve MacNamara because Buss was not supportive enough of MacNamara’s scheme to privatize more prisons.

It is imperative that the administration, which ignored the growing mess at DOC, now steps back and gives its chosen secretary the authority and autonomy to clean it up.

Jones will need help from inspectors general, trusted prison staff and families of inmates with knowledge of the problems.

A great resource for Jones and Evers is Allison DeFoor, who has hands-on experience as a prison minister. DeFoor also chairs Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, a conservative think tank.

He testified in committee and offered an honest appraisal of the existing problems along with workable solutions.

Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature doesn’t always listen to experts.

Years ago, a comprehensive plan was offered by Judge Steve Leifman, who served as special adviser on criminal justice and mental health for the Florida Supreme Court.

His task force report was ignored despite its merits and effective implementation elsewhere.

The excuse: We couldn’t afford to do it.

Had it been implemented, the state would be enjoying not only better outcomes but also significant savings.

In addition to administrative changes within the DOC, legislative changes will be necessary.

Decriminalizing minor offenses, focusing on rehabilitation and reentry and addressing the mentally ill need to be in the mix as well as fixing structural problems, adding corrections officers, providing proper training and adhering to a strict zero-tolerance policy on misconduct.

Jones needs the trust and expertise of legislators who focus on criminal justice issues.

New legislators, like state Sen. Rob Bradley, are stepping up and showing real interest and an impressive depth of knowledge.

Hopefully this go-round, legislative leaders and the governor will listen to the experts, trust those they’ve put in charge of the task, rid the DOC of the culture that encourages cover-ups, and provide the necessary resources to ensure true reform to a badly damaged system.

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