The unconscionable inhumanity in Florida prisons. Top lawmaker calls it a “powder keg.” | By STEVE BOUSQUET
SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL |
SEP 20, 2019 | 9:32 AM
The nation's third-largest prison system is "a powder keg," a key Florida legislator warns. The Legislature must confront the wretched conditions inside the walls.
The nation's third-largest prison system is "a powder keg," a key Florida legislator warns. The Legislature must confront the wretched conditions inside the walls. (Phil Sears)
To see the real-life consequences of official neglect and incompetence, look no further than the Florida Department of Corrections.
For decades, governors and legislators neglected the nation’s third-largest prison system, and conditions have steadily deteriorated from bad to terrible to catastrophic. By all accounts, they’re getting worse.
“By every metric, this department is in crisis,” says Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who chairs the budget panel that oversees prisons and who has toured lockups across the state. “It’s a powder keg.”
Staff turnover is at record highs, with so many unfilled jobs that some prison dorms have closed, resulting in staggering overtime costs to taxpayers to keep skeleton crews on duty. More than 4,400 employees left last year alone at a cost of about $159 million, the agency says.
Violence is on the rise between inmates and by inmates against employees. Contraband is everywhere. Only about five inmates of every 100 get any chance to learn.
The physical and mental well-being of officers is a major worry, with high-ranking officers describing stress that leads to alcohol abuse and divorce. Inmates with Hepatitis C don’t receive the treatment they need.
With starting pay for front-line guards at $33,000 a year, Florida can’t compete to hire or retain enough people to watch over an inmate population of about 96,000 that gets older and sicker by the day. A young officer can earn $10,000 more a year working in a county jail, where it’s safer and probably air-conditioned, too.
If state lawmakers do nothing else in the session that opens in January, they must confront the wretched conditions in Florida’s prisons that they have perpetuated.
It won’t be easy. It’s an election year and a period of transition with new leaders taking charge amid fears of a recession that have stirred talk of the need to save more money, not spend it.
Besides, it’s so easy to look the other way. Nobody cares about prisons, and politicians in Tallahassee don’t work to get plaques for raising the base pay of prison guards. So the neglect continues.
This problem isn’t new.
In a landmark case in the 1970s, inmate Michael Costello convinced a federal judge to take over the system due to chronic overcrowding and health care deficiencies. Another judge dropped escape charges against inmates in 1980 because, he said, conditions at Florida State Prison amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Corrections is the largest state agency with 25,000 employees. The taxes you pay are more likely to end up in a prison than anyplace else. Most inmates aren’t lifers. Many are non-violent drug users. They will return to society, maybe to your neighborhood.
There are positive signs. In recent years, more legislators have made site visits to more prisons to see for themselves how bad things are. Social media provides a desperately-needed forum for the families of inmates. Across the U.S., states are rectifying past mistakes and finding effective alternatives for non-violent offenders.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ corrections secretary, Mark Inch, wants about $150 million in new money next year to attack decades-old problems of turnover, violence, addiction and recidivism. What made things worse, Inch said, was a decision seven years ago in former Gov. Rick Scott’s first term to put guards on 12-hour shifts, which worsened stress and turnover.
As Inch made his request to senators this week, Brandes faulted him for not demanding more. Instead of asking for about 300 new positions, Inch was told he should demand thousands, and higher base pay for guards.
Inch didn’t even mention recent acts of horrific violence inside the walls, such as the case of Cheryl Weimar, a 51-year-old inmate paralyzed from the neck down after a brutal attack by guards at Lowell C.I., near Ocala.
Every decision in Tallahassee comes down to money, and Brandes says that if the state won’t spend the money to hire enough people to staff prisons, the only option is fewer inmates. He supports releasing certain non-violent inmates after they serve 65 percent of their time.
Releasing non-violent inmates who have less than two years remaining on their sentences would save $152 million, the amount needed for the agency’s immediate needs. But that is a highly controversial idea with hard-liners in the Florida House and where the next speaker, Rep. Chris Sprowls, is a former state prosecutor.
“It’s catastrophic," Brandes says. "We have to find the money in the existing system.”
Steve Bousquet is a Sun Sentinel columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 567-2240.