“This department is in crisis,” GOP lawmaker says about FL Corrections agency

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Facing lawmakers in the Capitol for the first time since inmate beatings by corrections officers sparked headlines, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch contended with questions about brutality in Florida’s prison system.

“I think it’s a huge problem. I think it’s a humanitarian crisis – what’s going on in our prisons,” Orange County Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy said to Inch.

The secretary appeared at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice on Wednesday to go over a proposed budget for the corrections agency.

But given the several beating incidents this summer by corrections officers, Bracy interrupted Inch.

“How about staff on inmate violence?” he asked. “I think that’s prevalent in the DOC (Department of Corrections), and I think it has been for a long time. That also causes stress among inmates.”

In one of the most brutal cases, four guards have been accused of severely beating female inmate Cheryl Weimar at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala in August. She was left with a broken neck and other injuries that will require around-the clock medical care for the rest of her life.

In July, a group of corrections officers were captured on a cellphone video, brutally beating a prisoner at Lake Correctional Institution in central Florida.

In another incident, a Democratic lawmaker’s former brother-in-law was allegedly attacked by guards at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando. The inmate suffered a broken jaw, broken nose, broken cheekbone and a fractured eye socket.

In the cellphone video case, the corrections officers were fired, but Bracy criticized the department for reacting to the incident only after the video went viral.

“I believe that it’s a culture,” Bracy told Inch. “And I didn’t hear that in your primary themes of what you want to do in this legislative session, but I do think it should be included.”

Inch agreed, but said he hadn’t included those beating incidents in his budget presentation because there’s a system in place to contend with criminal allegations.

Republican state Sen. Keith Perry of Gainesville defended corrections officers, saying that with so much interaction between inmates and correction officers in a tough environment, “the press is going to play up the ones” involved in abuse cases.

“I want to point out though that with the 100,000 hours of interactions that happen, I don’t believe that we’re in an epidemic state,” Perry said. “You’re not a corrections officer or a police officer in Main Street Disney World. You’re in an environment where people are in prison for certain reasons, and some of those people are violent people who want to cause problems.”

As to Inch’s budget proposals, the secretary discussed the major stresses that corrections officers face, including an increase in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence.

In a major move, Inch said he wants to jettison the current system of 12-hour days for corrections officers, and go back to an 8.5 hour daily schedule.

Miami Democratic state Senator Annette Taddeo asked if shifting from a 12-hour day to an 8.5 hour one would reduce “the incidents that we’re reading about in the paper?”

Inch said it would, adding that there are comparative studies to back that up. And he’s proposing $29 million for a pilot program to convert about a third of the institutions to an 8.5 hour day.

Inch described what has happened over the years because of the 12-hour day.

The turnover rate among corrections officers has increased by 150 percent between 2009 and 2019;  the percent of corrections officers who have less than two years of experience has increased by 67 percent; the introduction of contraband into prisons increased by 484 percent; and inmate-on-inmate assaults increased by 67 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults increased by 47 percent.

Inch also is requesting $60.6 million in funding for pay raises to attract and retain corrections officers.

Other items in Inch’s proposed budget include a request to hire 67 “security threat group sergeants,” who would look out for organized criminal activity inside prisons; 17 “wellness specialists” who would organize recreation activities for inmates and $900,000 for career and technical education advisors. Currently, only five percent of the state’s approximately 96,000 plus prisoner population is getting educational programming.

Inch also is requesting $9 million for repair and maintenance of the state’s prison facilities. That doesn’t include funding to add air-conditioning to most of the older institutions. “The cost is just exorbitant,” Inch said.

Still, “By every metric, this department is in crisis,” committee chairman Jeff Brandes told reporters after the meeting. He referred to the lack of inmate programming, high attrition rates for corrections officers and too many inmates in the system.

The St. Petersburg Republican has been a leading advocate for criminal justice reform for years, but hasn’t been able to get GOP colleagues to go along with proposals such as restoring parole for inmates and releasing inmates early for good behavior. It’s estimated that the early releases could save the state nearly 200 million.

After listening to the dire budget needs that Inch laid out, Brandes reacted sharply when asked what it would take to get the rest of the Legislature to boost funding for a department that is vastly underfunded.

“If they’re not terrified by the numbers that were presented today, I don’t know what else is going to move them,” he said.

Senator Bracy said despite the increased attention related to the corrections agency, he still isn’t sure if the GOP-led Legislature is willing to substantially increase the department’s budget.

“We’ve been talking about this for years, and it’s been largely ignored. My hope is that with these (beating) incidents we start to take it a little more seriously, but that remains to be seen.”

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