Daniel Tilson: Fixing Florida's prison system once and for all

Gov. Rick Scott’s mishandling of Florida’s deadly prison system dysfunction continues.

The latest example came early this week, when Gov. Scott announced appointment by the Cabinet of Florida (him, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam) of Rick Swearington as new Commissioner of Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

Seems simple enough, right?

But when reporters asked for details on why 30-year-plus veteran Commissioner Gerald Bailey was being replaced, Scott said simply, “He resigned.” The press did what they do, pressing for more information. Scott answered, “Commissioner Bailey did a great job.”

As reported in the Miami Herald, when Bailey was asked for reaction, he said, “I did not voluntarily do anything. If he said I resigned voluntarily, that is a lie. If he said that, he’s being totally untruthful.”

When AG Bondi was asked for reaction, she caused more confusion by saying, “I do not know…I think Gerry Bailey has retired. I think he’s a very private person. And you can talk to him about that.” This, after having voted to replace him.

The bottom line is that Bailey’s forced “retirement” is part of Gov. Scott’s effort to put months of scandalously bad publicity for Florida’s prison system in the rear-view mirror.

Last summer, in the wake of revelations and lawsuits surrounding multiple inmate deaths, some in torturously horrible fashion, Scott did what governors do. He had Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Mike Crews go on the offensive, defending his domain and promising reforms.

Part of the damage control plan involved a “verbal agreement” between the DOC and FDLE that all cases of questionable inmate deaths would be turned over to the FDLE for investigation.

In late September, more than 30 frontline DOC officers, prison guards, were fired. No high-level officials have been fired as yet, nor criminally charged with concealing deadly abuse.

Then came an early October bombshell, a scathing investigative report by the Miami Herald, demonstrating how repeated incidents of horrific abuse were compounded by a cover-up of those cases.

In November, DOC Secretary Crews “resigned.” Gov. Scott named Julie Jones, retired head of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and formerly law enforcement director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as his replacement.

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will investigate what the hell has gone so wrong with Florida’s prison system. My choice of words there, not theirs.

And now here in this shiny new year, we have to make sense of it all, and fix it.

Last week, the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard testimony on the issue. Allison DeFoor, Chairman of FSU’s Project on Accountable Justice (a conservative-funded think tank) made clear that scapegoating overworked, underpaid prison guards operating under incredibly difficult conditions wasn’t the answer:

“Low wages….no pay increase in 7 years, there is never enough staff, there is a chronic shortage of staff in buildings that are crumbling at the operational level un-air conditioned. If this was the Third World, we would call this a sweat shop.”

The FSU think tank proposes an “independent oversight commission with the authority to inspect corrections facilities at any time, set policy and recommend improvements.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, last week filed SB 212, which includes creation of such a commission.

Floridians of good conscience who believe that how we treat our prisoners is a barometer who we are as a people, and as a state, have to remain vigilant, seeing to it that our penal system reflects our values, rather than fly in the face of them.

Daniel Tilson has a Boca Raton-based communications firm called Full Cup Media, specializing in online video and written content for non-profits, political candidates and organizations, and small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Daniel Tilson


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