“We’re going to get better,” Florida’s new prisons chief vows

The recent reports of abuse in Florida prisons are disturbing.

The Department of Corrections fired three guards at Lake Correctional Institute last month after they were captured on a cellphone video brutally attacking a prisoner. Two of the guards were arrested on charges of malicious battery, and the third was arrested on two counts of perjury.

A month ago, four guards allegedly attacked inmate Carlton Hart at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando. Hart, who was once married to a state legislator’s sister, suffered a broken jaw, broken nose, broken cheekbone and fractured eye socket. The state is investigating the incident.

The Department of Corrections was also embarrassed this spring when a handful of its employees were caught participating in a social media meme called the #feelingcute challenge, where they posted comments about abusing inmates. The fallout: One employee was fired, another suspended, a third demoted, and a fourth ordered to get counseling. A fifth employee resigned.

These types of stories are not new. Time magazine wrote about the “rot of Florida’s corrections culture” back in 2007.

And as disturbing as these and other reports are, they don’t even rank among the top priorities that the new man in charge of the department says he is focusing on in 2019.

Budget constraints have devastated education programming for inmates in recent years, making inmates less equipped than ever to re-join society. One warden told state lawmakers in February that she had only one academic teacher available in a prison housing 1,200 inmates.

There are also serious fiscal issues in paying for prescription drugs and providing health care for the state’s 96,000 inmates.

New corrections secretary “took offense” at guard violence

Stepping into the hot seat is retired Army Major General Mark S. Inch, a former Trump official that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to take control of the troubled department in January. With more than 24,000 employees, it’s the biggest public agency in the state.

Regarding the stories of prison abuse, Inch says the incident at Lake Correctional, where a smuggled cellphone recorded disturbing video of guards severely beating a prisoner, reminded him of the photos showing abuse and torture that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 when he served in the Army.

“Whenever you’re a part of a profession and something – even if it’s one single squad of solders, or in this case, three (officers) out of that group at Lake (Correctional) that acted so far outside the core values of your profession…you take offense. And I took offense.”

Inch’s last job was leading the federal Bureau of Prisons in the Trump administration. But his tenure ended abruptly in May 2018 after just nine months on the job. He’s not spoken publicly about his departure. The New York Times reported that he resigned over frustrations with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who is a White House advisor.

In his first seven months in Florida, Inch has cut a low-key figure, with most of his public statements dedicated to explaining some of the errant behavior of correctional officers.

Speaking with the Phoenix, Inch promised serious reform on his watch, but said it will likely take several years. His goals, he said, include restoring programs to keep inmates from being idle, addressing aging infrastructure and “steadying the staff” who are now working with their sixth corrections secretary in a decade.

A new focus ?

Inch said he is focusing on four main issues:

1 – The high attrition rate of correctional officers.

Already at a dismal rate of 34 percent when he took office, it’s now at nearly 36 percent, a rate that he says no institution can sustain. The department has about 3,000 vacant positions.

2 – Violence in prisons.

While inmate abuse is disturbing, Inch says it’s not the main problem when it comes to violence in Florida prisons. It’s inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-officer attacks that he is looking at. Buttressing that viewpoint is a recent investigative report by GateHouse Media and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that found inmate violence has more than doubled in the last decade and inmate attacks on correctional officers have increased by 130 percent over the last four years.

“Our violence rates are simply unacceptable,” Inch says, attributing some of the problems to the dearth of instructors and programming, which gives inmates too many idle hours.

But Tampa Democratic state Rep. Dianne Hart, who has been visiting state prisons and focusing on reform, says inmate abuse by guards is a serious problem and the department may be in denial about it.

3- Stemming the rising costs of health care.

Sick and aging inmates in Florida – and across the U.S. – are sparking rising health care costs. The state legislature approved a $135 million increase to cover inmates’ health care this year. That includes nearly $14 million for the increased costs of prescription drugs, and nearly $35 million to better treat inmates with Hepatitis C. Yet, at the same time,  the corrections department is challenging a court ruling that says the state has to pay for Hepatitis C treatment for inmates who are in the early stages of the infection.

4 – Addressing aging infrastructure in the corrections system.

That goes for not only the physical prisons, Inch says, but also for information technology, where the department is “well behind” where an agency of its size and importance should be.

A ‘thankless job’

Prisons and jails by their nature are dangerous places to live and work. In the past year (July 1, 2018- June 30, 2019), 387 prisoners have died inside Florida prisons. While the state reports the majority of those deaths as “natural,” 35 are listed as “accidents,” and 19 of them are under investigation.

Many observers say that the system can’t improve until the state shows it values correctional officers. Certified officers start out making $33,500 a year, a salary that a recent Orlando Sentinel editorial labeled as “embarrassing” when factoring in the danger and stress levels.  Statewide, about 12,000 correctional officers supervise some 96,000 inmates.

This year’s state budget boosted corrections department spending by six percent – to $2.7 billion.

But it included no raises for correctional officers. And to address turnover, the Legislature voted to lower the minimum age to serve as a correctional officer from 19 to 18.

“You give that job without the support of the legislature to any capable human being and they’re doomed to fail,” says Debborah Brodsky, the director of at the Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice.  “You cannot fix this system by itself. That’s just the reality. It will not fix itself. (Correctional officers) have to go every day and do a job that is absolutely horrible under difficult, dangerous conditions, yet we do nothing to support the improvement on it.”

Florida’s last governor – Rick Scott – made unacceptably deep cuts to the prison system, she said.

“This is not a place where you can ‘efficiency away’ the problems.”

Philip Maginnis worked at Union Correctional in Raiford for more than 25 years before retiring as a captain last fall.

“This really is a thankless job,” he says in one of the YouTube videos he has put on his Facebook page. It’s no respect from the media. Civilian world. Inmates’ families. Attorneys. Advocates. Anything like that. We are just ‘the scum of the earth,’ so you’ll be expected to work long hours, work your days off sometimes. Don’t count on any pay raises, because those are far and few in between. You’ll work in an institution that is constantly short-staffed.”

In an interview, Maginnis said the most disturbing thing that he saw towards the end of his career was the lack of work ethic with new correctional officers.

Inch says he wants to instill five “core values” for everyone in the corrections department to consider: respect, integrity, courage, selfless service and compassion.

“It’s not a question of whether we’re going to get better – we’re going to get better,” he pledges. “It’s just a matter of pace by which we get better and has to be balanced against all the (other) priorities.”

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