Private Prisons: Scott’s Endgame? By Paula Dockery

Posted: March 20, 2015 in News and politics

Generally when a crisis occurs in a large organization, the CEO is expected to acknowledge and address the problem, keep stakeholders up to date on progress and be held accountable for the problems that occurred.

Why is it, then, that Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott has been AWOL on the crisis within our prison system?

Here are some of the problems: a record number of inmate deaths, suspicious deaths not reported as such, claims of widespread prisoner abuse, drugs and contraband, investigator reports ignored, investigators intimidated and silenced, potential inspector general retaliation and cover-ups, four Department of Corrections (DOC) secretaries in as many years, crumbling buildings, leaky roofs, dilapidated vehicles, dangerously low staffing levels, excessive overtime costs, and questionable contracts for privatized services such as medical care.

And yet when disturbing reports started surfacing — about a mentally ill prisoner who was scalded to death at Dade Correctional or a nonviolent offender seeking medical treatment who was punished and gassed to death instead — there was a shocking lack of concern from the governor. The silent indifference was so unsettling that former DOC chief Jim McDonough exclaimed, “Where is the outrage?”

To date, the governor has not directly acknowledged the problems, answered any questions, nor communicated a plan of action. Instead he let his third DOC secretary, Mike Crews, take the heat. Crews resigned amid the growing scandal.

Crews admitted that during the re-election campaign, the governor’s then-chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, told him that he needed to take a bullet for the governor.

Crews expressed frustration that the governor and his staff were more concerned with crafting news releases than with doing what needed to be done to keep the institutions safe and secure.

This behavior came from the very administration that touts accountability, transparency and business acumen.

The DOC is responsible for the well-being of all inmates under its supervision.

Its inmate population now stands at 102,000 and the budget more than $2 billion — more inmates, fewer staff and less funding than when Scott took office.

For years the DOC has been understaffed, underfunded and not properly maintained. Turnover is high, morale is low and persistent efforts to privatize prisons and prison functions have drained resources from DOC needs.

Even when Scott appointed Julie Jones as Crews’ replacement — the fourth to attempt to run the underfunded, understaffed, redheaded stepchild agency of the Scott administration — he failed to convey any outrage or plans to address the situation that had been festering in the public view for close to a year.

Jones made some promising remarks to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, for which I bestowed kudos and premature optimism for the department.

However, that was short-lived. In short order, Jones retracted her brave comments on private prisons cherry-picking less expensive inmates and her staffing recommendations that were higher than what the governor included in his budget.

Oops.

Then in another disappointing move, she put a gag order on investigators to prevent them from discussing prison abuses.

With all due respect, I want to retract my kudos. Jones has not proved to be the independent leader needed to right the ship.

She needs to encourage investigators to seek out abuse, to fix the problems (and not continue the pattern of covering them up) and to fight for the funding and staffing levels to meet the mission of the department.

The corrections department’s website defines its mission quite simply: to protect the public safety, to ensure the safety of its personnel, and to provide proper care and supervision of all offenders under its jurisdiction while assisting their reentry into society.

By even the most generous of measures, DOC is failing that mission miserably.

Florida Senate leaders on the issue — Sens. Greg Evers, Rob Bradley and Jeff Clemens — have crafted meaningful policy changes to address the problems. They passed a bill out of committee creating an independent commission to oversee the troubled prisons. Jones and the Scott administration seem unsupportive even with the U.S. Department of Justice looking over Florida’s shoulder.

Gov. Scott failed to fund the investigators former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey requested before Scott’s minions forced him out. Perhaps his ouster had more to do with the prison mess than we originally thought. Did he have to take a bullet, too?

The cynic in me is starting to believe that the Scott administration doesn’t want to fix the problems at the department and doesn’t want to fully investigate the abuse that has been and still is occurring.

In the meantime, people in state supervision are dying and the state is exposed to costly litigation and liability.

Perhaps this is the means to an end and Scott’s true mission is to fully privatize Florida’s prisons — at any cost.

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