Harmful and inhumane prison conditions demand action by lawmakers, but is time running out?

Florida Department of Corrections photo.

Last October, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, warned Florida lawmakers about growing tensions in the state’s prisons.

“The status quo cannot continue,” Inch declared. The situation was approaching a “death spiral, or the plane crashing into the side of a cliff or, you know, the tipping point.”

Inch said violence among those currently incarcerated and between guards and prisoners was on the rise in state facilities, which hold 96,000 people and employ more than 17,000.

He asked lawmakers to increase funding, not only to hire and train more guards, but also for more self-improvement and education courses to increase rehabilitation and self-improvement.

In early February, despite the dire warnings and pleas for help, the House Criminal Justice Committee announced it would not meet again, all but ensuring that numerous common-sense criminal justice reform bills filed this session will die without the public having the opportunity to be heard or to discuss the impact on loved ones in state prisons.

Violent incidents

Recent incidents of guard violence and litigation illustrate just how bad the status quo is and what is at stake in our state.

Last August, at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Ocala, Cheryl Weimar was allegedly attacked by four male guards.

According to a lawsuit later filed on her behalf, Weimar told the guards she was unable to perform a work assignment, cleaning toilets, due to a chronic and painful hip problem. When they insisted she do the work anyway, Weimar, who suffers from mental health issues, suffered what is described in the lawsuit as “an adverse psychological episode.”

According to her attorney, the incident led to Weimar being thrown to the floor, beaten, then “dragged like a rag doll” away from surveillance cameras, and beaten some more. She was eventually taken to a hospital in Jacksonville where, according to the Miami Herald, she was diagnosed with a broken neck and paralysis below the neck.

The four officers remained on the payroll, although they were removed from future contact with prisoners, according to the department.

At Lake Correctional Institution in Lake County last July, about a half dozen guards held down Otis Miller. The incident, captured on a cell phone video, clearly showed two of the officers pounding the man repeatedly and viciously with their fists.

After the clandestine video emerged, two of the guards were removed from duty and charged with battery, and another, a captain, was charged with falsifying reports.

If the video had not been made public, would anything have been done?

Inadequate health care for inmates

The state has also developed a chronic problem in its failure to provide adequate health care for people who are currently incarcerated.

In particular, the courts have found that the state has not provided the necessary treatment for thousands of prisoners suffering from Hepatitis C.

Many Floridians are incarcerated for non-violent crimes related to drug abuse, and they are much more likely to have been infected with the Hep C virus than the general population. If left untreated, it can cause liver damage, liver cancer, and even death.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker accused the department of “shirking its duty” to treat people solely because lawmakers would not allot necessary funds.

He said a “long and sordid history” of neglect existed, and he ordered screening and care for the disease. His order revealed that of the 55,000 prisoners screened, more than 7,000 suffered from the disease. The state appealed his order.

Solitary confinement

Yet another problem is Florida prisons’ frequent use of solitary confinement.

A lawsuit against the state filed by Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute contends:

“Nearly one out of every seven individuals in isolation in the United States is in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections. Every day, FDC isolates approximately 10,000 people in tiny, cramped cells for nearly 24 hours a day; many endure these conditions for months or years at a time… Unlike many other states, FDC isolates people who suffer from a heightened risk of harm, such as teenagers, people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, and people with physical disabilities, even though it is aware of the heightened risk to these populations.”

Corrections Secretary Inch has warned lawmakers that Florida is risking prison riots that could cost the lives of both prisoners and guards.

Common-sense reforms?

There were many common-sense reforms on the table this year that would have addressed inhumane prison conditions and overcrowding. But despite a measure of bipartisan support in the Senate, those reforms have been elusive.

Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee had the opportunity to debate Senate Bill 1308, but failed, though people traveled from all across the state to testify in support the reforms.

The package included prohibiting the arrest of children under the age of 10, allowing young adults sentenced to excessively lengthy prison sentences to apply for sentencing review, and allowing compassionate release for incarcerated people who are elderly and very ill.

House Bill 189 and Senate Bills 572 and 394 would allow individuals in prison to earn more rehabilitation credits (otherwise known as gain time).

Last year, the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimated that over $860 million would be saved over five years by adjusting the gain time statute to 65 percent, and that there would be a reduction in prison beds of approximately 9,000. This recommendation has bipartisan support from policy experts and conservative-leaning think tanks.

If our lawmakers passed these bills, the Legislature could expand rehabilitation in prisons, reduce recidivism and increase public safety, save taxpayer money and still have millions leftover to address the overcrowding of Florida’s prisons.

There’s still time for lawmakers to do these things, but will they?