A Florida Senate committee on Monday launched a preliminary review of the state's beleaguered prison system, taking a first glance at how inmate deaths are being scrutinized since reports of abuse and corruption were published last year.
The Department of Corrections is grappling with investigations into inmate deaths at the hands of prison guards, lawsuits from whistle-blowers who claim they faced retaliation for exposing cover-ups of inmate abuse, and questions about inmate health care after the state's privatization of health services began more than a year ago.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement took over as the lead agency to examine inmate deaths based on a "memorandum of understanding" between the department and the corrections agency in an attempt to inject more objectivity into the reviews, interim FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday.
Of the 104 cases the FDLE has investigated, nearly a third -- 31 -- have been closed, Swearingen said. The majority of the cases are nonsuspicious, he said. But the workload has become so great Swearingen is asking for an additional 66 workers and $8.4 million to cover costs of investigating the inmate deaths and use-of-force incidents by local law enforcement agencies.
Some senators objected that the inmate death-investigation process is flawed after learning that Swearingen and new Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who took over as head of the agency on Monday, inherited a "verbal agreement" between their predecessors about which agency would investigate, and under what circumstances.
Currently, all deaths are reported automatically to FDLE. But that is not laid out in the formal agreement between the two agencies, noted Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
"If I were king for a day I would like to see that every single death that occurs in a facility gets reported to FDLE until such time as I'm confident in the system. And I'm lacking confidence right now in the system," Bradley, a former prosecutor, said.
"I understand," Swearingen said. "We may not get to the point where we can say we have confidence. Rest assured FDLE will be the third-party unbiased investigator until that happens."
Committee Chairman Greg Evers said he wanted to give Swearingen, and especially Jones, a few weeks on the job before deciding what the Legislature needs to do -- if anything -- to address a laundry list of issues, including inmate deaths.
Evers, whose Panhandle district includes three prisons and several work camps, said the committee would work with Jones to develop recommendations "to change the direction" of the department after the information-gathering stage is complete.
"There has to be a change of attitude. ... How do you legislate a change of attitude? The jury's still out on how we implement it. But I think having a secretary that has a consistency of being there for four years would definitely be a change of attitude," Evers, R-Baker, said.
Appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last month, Jones is the fourth chief of the corrections agency since Scott took office four years ago.
When asked if he was frustrated by the turnover in the agency's leadership, Evers scoffed and said, "To say the least."
Bradley, who served for two years as the powerful chairman of the Senate criminal-justice budget committee, has filed a measure that would require approval from Cabinet members, as well as the governor, of such appointments. Bradley's proposal also would create a nine-member Florida Corrections Commission to help oversee the system. Among other things, the commission would conduct inspections of prison facilities, identify problematic facilities and monitor violence involving inmates and officers.
Evers said having the prisons and prison workers in his district gives him a more intimate knowledge of the issues facing his committee.