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Martin Dyckman: Aloof Scott lets prison crisis fester, worsen

Barely a month after Reubin Askew became governor in 1971, inmates at Florida’s largest prison began a series of sit-down and hunger strikes. Their keepers used excessive force – birdshot, bullets and beatings – to restore control.

Askew took immediate ownership of the situation. He sent two aides to Raiford to investigate and overruled the prison’s attempt to bar reporters. He eventually ordered Louie Wainwright, the long-time head of corrections, to suspend three officials and seven people of lesser rank, and called for a criminal investigation by an outside state attorney he trusted.

“I am firmly convinced,” he said, “that until the protection of rules and laws is provided inside prison walls, we will never adequately establish respect for law and order in our free society.”

“I think Askew surprised an incestuous system very accustomed to running its own show,” says Don Pride, the press secretary then, who was one of the governor’s investigators.

For all that, nobody had died. Of the more than 60 inmates injured, only two were hurt seriously. But Askew didn’t need a death to know that he had to take charge.

Askew’s total personal involvement contrasts sharply with the distance that the current governor, Rick Scott, has tried to keep from the extremely serious problems in his prisons.

Despite a record 320 deaths in a single year and evidence of lethal staff brutality in several cases, Florida’s current governor has displayed no personal concern and has commented only when confronted by the press. Although he has sacked one corrections secretary after another, most of his actions have been for the worse. Amidst nearly $1.5-million in campaign contributions from the private prison industry, he tried to give it all the institutions in South Florida and did succeed in turning over all of the system’s health care. When four conscientious prison inspectors sought whistleblower protection, Scott’s office denied it.

The governor also purged Gerald Bailey, the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who had balked at carrying political water for him. That hardly bodes well for the FDLE’s current investigation of prison deaths. Notably, Bailey disclosed to the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald last week that Scott’s office had tried to force him to identify an innocent circuit court clerk as a criminal suspect in the escape of two inmates with forged release papers.

It’s time for the U.S. Justice Department, which has already sent letters of interest, to take full charge of Florida’s prison scandal.

Throughout, Scott hasn’t had a word to say about reforming a criminal justice system that almost everyone else – including even the Koch brothers – criticizes for imprisoning too many people and for much too long, and for ignoring rehabilitation. He went the other way, in fact, by making ex-offenders wait five years before applying for restoration of civil rights.

Scott’s aloofness is odd considering that he grew up, as he so often says, having been abandoned by his father and living in public housing. He has a brother who suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness. Scott of all people should be more compassionate toward others.

Askew too had been abandoned by his father, but the similarities to Scott end there. He made prison reform a personal priority.

That winter, the St. Petersburg Times had published an extensive series, “Criminal Justice in Florida: Reform or Revenge?” It was promptly underscored by the troubles at Raiford.

As Wainwright and his people were the first to concede, the prisoners had valid complaints about overcrowding, disparities in sentencing and an arbitrary, risk-averse and occasionally sadistic parole commission.

Askew and the Legislature of his day undertook many reforms, but events became overwhelming. For a time, the system was under federal court oversight for overcrowding and began spending – wasting, in many eyes – billions of dollars on new cells instead of prevention.

The problems were aggravated by hard-line judges and parole commissioners and by legislators who overreacted to rising crime and yellow journalism. The results: mandatory minimums, draconian sentencing laws, guidelines that tied judges’ hands too tightly and abolition of parole.

With some 100,000 inmates today, the system is 10 times larger than Askew’s was, in a Florida population only three times greater.

“We are at the tail end of an ugly several decades that began when Nelson Rockfeller wanted to be president and tried to pretend that he was something that he was not – a conservative – and to evade the aftermath of Attica,” says Allison DeFoor, a former sheriff and judge, who directs Florida’s university-based Project on Accountable Justice. Rockefeller’s hard-line New York laws infected Florida and other states.

The Project’s recent recommendations to a Senate committee include an independent oversight commission, which is a good idea, and putting the Cabinet in charge of prisons along with the governor, which is not. That’s the same witless Cabinet that let Scott savage clemency and sack Bailey.

The Miami Herald’s superb prison investigator, Julie K. Brown, wrote this month how guards at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution did nothing, despite pleas from other prisoners, to stop another from brutally beating his cellmate to death. It seems to confirm what a former prison psychotherapist told the Senate committee: that the system is “riddled” by a minority of guards who are “sadistic, amoral, sociopaths.”

As the lead reporter in that long-ago Times series, I perceived that there were few really bad actors at work in the prisons. From the top down, most of the staff wanted to treat the inmates decently, hoping to make better people of them.

But the question posed by the subtitle, “Reform or Revenge?” is still the issue. When the people who work in prisons – a hard, underpaid and dangerous job – sense that the politicians and the public would rather take revenge on offenders than try to reform them, should we be surprised how badly some of them act?

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.

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