It is widely acknowledged that the fox should not guard the henhouse. It follows that he shouldn’t hire those who do.
That’s a potential problem in the Florida Senate’s comprehensive and well-meant prison bill. (SB 7020)
Among other things, it creates a Florida Corrections Commission to monitor what goes on in a prison system becoming notorious for unexplained deaths of inmates and retaliation against whistleblowers.
Independent oversight is, to be sure, a splendid idea that is long overdue.
Trouble is, all nine commission members would be appointed by the same person, the governor, who also hires and fires the secretary of corrections.
Presently, and for nearly four more years, that’s Rick Scott.
When four conscientious prison inspectors went to Scott’s inspector general to complain of cover-ups, she turned them away and refused to give them whistle-blower protection.
Gerald Bailey, after being rudely sacked as director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, says Scott’s office had tried to make him blame an innocent circuit court clerk for the escape of two prisoners with forged papers.
Mike Crews, the third of the four corrections secretaries under Scott, told the Miami Herald that Scott was more concerned with controlling the damaging publicity than with finding out why inmates had been gassed, scalded and beaten to death. He said he resisted orders to fire employees who weren’t responsible and to stop receiving detailed written reports on inmate fatalities, which would have made it harder for the Herald to continue exposing them.
Crews also told the Herald that he was ordered to reduce his requests for desperately needed budget increases and met with the governor only once – when he was hired.
Those accounts hardly describe a governor who cares what happens in his prisons except for how it might embarrass him, or who can be trusted to appoint a truly independent oversight commission.
Another provision in the bill would require the governor to get the consent of all three Cabinet members to hire a corrections secretary and the assent of two of them to fire one. In effect, it would make the governor and Cabinet the head of the agency instead of the governor alone.
But the Cabinet is also the head of the Department of Law Enforcement, for all the good that did Bailey.
Because it’s the governor who controls the budget, Cabinet governance is a meaningless fig leaf. Leave the governor in charge. Make him live up to his responsibility.
The Legislature could do that. I will explain how.
A governor who would rather cut taxes than hire enough correctional officers or fix leaky dormitory roofs is unlikely to appoint oversight commissioners who would question his priorities.
Another issue in SB 7020 is the lack of a requirement that no more than five of the nine commission members belong to the same political party.
There’s a better way.
Oversight of agencies is, after all, one of the Legislature’s primary responsibilities – one that, with respect to prisons, hadn’t evidenced enough due diligence until recently.
The answer, it seems to me, is to create a permanent joint legislative committee on corrections. The legislation should provide for bipartisan membership, for a professional staff, and for very clear, specified oversight duties. The members should understand their mission to be as much about the governor’s stewardship of the prison system as it is about watch-dogging the people who work for him there.
One way or another, the investigative duties and powers specified in the bill are urgent.
Some of the other worthy provisions in SB 7020 would require better training for prison inspectors; give inmates multiple channels, including through family members and lawyers, to report sexual abuse; improve the health care grievance process; and educate correctional officers in dealing with mentally ill prisoners.
But the ultimate – and most compelling – reform is unaddressed in this legislation. That’s to stop imprisoning so many people for so long as Florida does. This is a topic in itself, for another column soon.
Original article here.