Some FL legislators are visiting inside state prisons, and they report disturbing conditions

(Warning to readers that the linked video contains violence.)

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said his Inspector General is investigating a “deeply disturbing” video posted on YouTube over the weekend that shows a group of corrections officers brutally beating a prisoner at Lake Correctional Institution outside Orlando. Inmates captured the clandestine video, reportedly on July 8,  and then passed it on to a citizen who made it public.

“This video is deeply disturbing. We have zero tolerance for officer abuse or misconduct for any reason,” Inch said in a written statement on Saturday. “The actions of these individuals will not be tolerated.”

A state lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart from Tampa, says the videotaped beating is one of many unsettling incidents she’s been hearing from inmates around Florida.

Hart is among a group of state lawmakers who have been making visits to state prisons – something legislators are permitted to do unannounced. The idea is to check in on the system and its inmates to make sure prisoners are fairly treated while serving time.

The Phoenix talked to some state lawmakers about what they are seeing – and hoping to change – inside Florida’s state prisons.

Beyond the prison gates

Hart says she hears “every day” from prisoners around the state who complain they are being abused by guards. She says she tells them to be as specific as possible in describing their circumstances, since – unlike the situation at Lake Correctional – they usually don’t have video to back up their claims.

“We have hundreds of letters in my office that I’m getting from all over the state of Florida,” Hart says, “and what I do is, I try to have them tell me the name of the officer that did whatever they did to them, the date, the time, because they’re going to say, ‘Well, you know, that really didn’t happen.’ So, I tell them: I need names, I need to know who did it? What they did, when they did it. Because sometimes you can go back and pull film, to ask to substantiate about what they say.”

Several state lawmakers have announced they will take up a challenge posed by the criminal justice reform group FAMM to visit a state prison soon.

Some of their colleagues have been making regular visits for years. They say that the most frequent complaints they hear from inmates and family members are about abusive treatment from prison guards. Access to health care (or the lack of it) is the next biggest complaint, they say (Centurion of Florida, a for-profit company, is the state prison system’s sole health care provider.)

The Department of Corrections did not respond to questions from the Phoenix about conditions the lawmakers reported.

Pushing for reform

Perhaps no lawmaker in recent times has been more effective in using his prison visits to make changes in Florida’s correctional system than former Miami Beach Democratic state Rep.David Richardson.

Richardson says that it was after he read a 2015 Miami Herald report about young inmates being beaten and raped in a prison broomstick ritual at Lancaster Correctional Institution that prompted him to begin a fact-finding tour. He ended up making more than 100 prison visits – most unannounced.

Richardson spoke to more than 90 inmates at Lancaster Correctional near Gainesville and took his findings to then-Department of Corrections head Julie Jones. She responded in early 2016 by closing down the youthful offender wing at Lancaster and moved more than 600 inmates between the ages of 18 and 24 to other institutions.

Richardson also shone a spotlight on Central Florida’s Sumter Correctional Institution, where  guards were beating inmates. The warden, management staff and top deputies were removed.

Richardson says his experience in the Legislature is proof that lawmakers have power to right wrongs, even if they’re not aligned with the political party in power.

“I’ve said, ‘Well, I helped close a prison. I made significant change,’ so I think you have to look at what’s possible in Tallahassee and recognize that you’re in the minority party, and while you’re not going to pass a lot of bills, there’s still a lot of good work that can be done.”

Richardson is no longer in the House, but he’s spoken with other lawmakers who have picked up the mantel and are visiting correctional facilities to try to improve conditions and learn more about the system that houses 96,000 inmates statewide.

Not all lawmakers who visit prisons have negative things to say about the conditions.

Republican state Sen. Tom Wright from Central Florida says he visited prisons in Ocala and Clermont.

“I was thoroughly amazed by how well run they were, how clean they were, how organized they were, and how well the staff and prisoners interacted in a professional way with each other,” he told the Phoenix.

Wright did note the lack of air conditioning in one facility, but said “if you’ve done what you’ve done to get yourself in prison, perhaps it’s not the responsibility of the taxpayers to give you a luxury hotel, you know?”

These state lawmakers see need for changes

Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes from St. Petersburg has led criminal justice reform issues in the state Legislature, and he is also visiting prisons.

Brandes says Florida’s inmates need more educational opportunities to prepare them for life after they’ve served their sentences.

“We have some facilities that have zero teachers, so inmates are often out in the yard or in their cells, and there’s nothing for them to do in between,” he says.

An egregious example is at Polk Correctional Institution, where there’s only one academic teacher for more 1,200 inmates. Assistant Warden Ann Casey told lawmakers in February that the position – which requires a Master’s degree – had been vacant for seven months, with a starting salary of $32,000, paling in comparison to what teachers could make in nearby Orange County.

Brandes says another thing he’d like to change after speaking with prison wardens is reducing the current 12-hour shifts guards serve to a more manageable eight or eight-and-a-half hour day.

Jacksonville-based House Democrat state Rep. Kim Daniels is a minister, and she’s been visiting prisoners long before she was elected to the Florida House in 2016.

Daniels is critical of the operations at Florida’s seven private prisons. “We’re giving people contracts and they’re making money and not producing the results that we need,” she says.

She says she’s heard many complaints from inmates about abuse and inadequate health care, but the number-one issue she hears from prisoners when she visits is that they want lawmakers to do something about “gain time,” meaning reducing time for good behavior.

“Often times, they can’t be so open about abuse or medical treatment for fear of retaliation, so they can talk freely about gain time,” she says.

Florida law requires nonviolent convicts to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, but a proposal was introduced in the Florida Senate this year that would have reduced that to 65 percent – provided the inmates had good behavior. State analysts said that if that proposal had passed, the measure would have removed more than 9,000 people from prisons by 2024 and could have potentially saved the state more than $800 million. But it wasn’t included in the Legislature’s final criminal justice reform bill.

Among the complaints that Hart says she’s been able to act on after visiting inmates is the time that prisons set for inmate meals. She says she was told in one prison that meal time lasted between four to five minutes.

“We feed hogs in 4-5 minutes, not people,” she says.

She spoke to Corrections Secretary Inch, and Inch issued a memo to wardens statewide to give inmates 10-15 minutes to finish their meals, she says (the Department of Corrections did not respond to confirm by the time of publication).

Hart has a personal reason for visiting prisons.

“My brother died in prison of AIDS,” she says, “and we had received permission for him to come home on compassionate relief, but we could never get him through the damned bureaucracy before he passed away. He died by himself.”

“I’m on a mission to try to ensure that when people are terminally ill at one of our facilities, they’re allowed a tiny bit of dignity and can be allowed to go home and die with their family.”

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